Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Like Never Before (orig. Jako Nikdy) 
Lidovky.cz (M. Kabát) review*
IndieFilm.cz (J. Jiřiště) review*
Novinky.cz (S. Dvořák) review*
Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]
Like Never Before (orig. Jako Nikdy)  [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed by Zdeněk Tyc [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*, screenplay by Markéta Bidlasová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) is a two Czech Lion (the Czech equivalent of the Oscars) winning and six Czech Lion nominated film that played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.
The title of the film itself is interesting and open to several manners of interpretation / translation from Czech into English. "Jako Nikdy" literally translates to "As If" "Never." Since due to Slavic use of declensions, Czech word order is more flexible than English word order, the title could be translated as as something of a condemnation "Like Never Before" of the current (moral) state of things, or if understood as simply the beginning of a sentence "Jako Nikdy... " could be understood as "As if [he] never..." giving a possible understanding of the title as "Jako Nikdy [Neexistoval]" / "As if [he] Never [Existed]" (suggesting a theme of "Oblivion").
I do believe that both interpretations of the title are interesting/valid because the film tells the story of the dying days of a (invented for the sake of the story) Czech painter named Vladimír (played by Jiří Schmitzer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) an atheist, and in past better days, a hedonist. And he was NOT dying a tranquil, "happy death."
Why? Well, his personal life was a complete mess. Caring for him were two women:
The first is Karla (played by Petra Špalková [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) also an artist, about 25 years his junior has lived with him for the last 20 or so years, but who's now realizing that (1) Vladimír's old and dying while she's still in her early 40s tops (with a LOT of Life left in her), and (2) since VLADIMIR NEVER MARRIED HER and had NO INTENTION of doing so now when he does she stands to inherit NOTHING of his (arguably THEIRS) and it's quite possible that after he's gone, she could end up on the street.
The second woman, Jaruna (played by Taťjana Medvecká [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) in her late 50s/60s and though MARRIED to someone else, is more "age appropriate" for Vladimír. Her claim to Vladimír's attentions now was simply that earlier on in life they had a very, very brief fling together while they were both teaching at the same secondary school, BUT NOW that Vladimir was dying and Karla was so self-evidently UNINTERESTED in taking care of him, she, AGAIN DESPITE BEING MARRIED TO SOMEONE ELSE, now hovers around Vladimír to take care of him in his dying days, perhaps because ONCE MORE, DESPITE BEING MARRIED TO SOMEONE ELSE, good ole Vladimir _had been_ the most exciting thing that had happened in her life.
For her part, Karla is AS HAPPY AS PIE when Jaruna comes around, because she can ditch the house and go "drinking" / "play darts" and "whatever..." with GUYS her own age (again married or not) by the local pub.
What does Vladimir think of all this? HE DOESN'T CARE. He's on morphine most of the time and when not in pain from the terminal cancer spreading all through his otherwise shrinking body, he's ANGRY. Why? BECAUSE HE'S DYING. In one scene, he's shown tearing up the pictures that he's painted before. Why? BECAUSE HE'S DYING. On one hand, he doesn't believe them good enough for his ideal. On the other hand, HE DOESN'T WANT THEM TO BE SHARED (PROFITED WITH) AFTER HE'S GONE. If HE can't go with them, then he doesn't want ANYONE to have them.
And so it is...
Does he have ANY FAMILY / RELATIVES? Well, there's a son Tomáš (played by Marek Němec [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) ... who hates him. Why? Well, Vladimir dumped Tomáš' mother and him when Tomáš was a boy (long before Vladimir eventually shacked-up with Karla... Indeed, Tomáš' and Karla appear to be close to the same age...). Tomáš had been out of Vladimir's life (by mutual consent) FOR DECADES. Vlad had no particular interest in his offspring, PARTICULARLY if he felt them "untalented" ... and Tomáš apparently couldn't hold a paint-brush particularly well (when? when he was SIX???) And Tomáš had long dismissed his father as an a-hole.
But Tomáš becomes necessary to Karla / Jaruna (and above all his dad) at one point because though Karla had lived with Vladimir for 20 odd years, SINCE SHE WAS NOT MARRIED TO HIM, she had no status. One time when Jaruna was at Vladimir's home changing his diapers (while Karla was out drinking beers and playing darts "with the guys" ...) Vladimir got so sick that she had to call the ambulance. "But Vladimir wants to die AT HOME," the still sobering-up Karla yells at Jaruna when she eventually staggers home after a night of partying. But Karla, let alone Jaruna, HAD NO STATUS, to petition the hospital to allow Vladimir to go home (against the wishes of the doctor). So they HAD TO FIND Tomáš to ask him to help them bring Vladimir home ...
Tomáš would just assume let him rot his last few days "v ustavu" (in an institution...) BUT he has a girl-friend who'd actually like to meet the father of her fiance' ... so ...
Wonderful, Vladimir comes home, and proceeds to be as "pleasant" to Tomáš fiancee' Šárka (played by Jana Pidrmanová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) as he's been to everybody else around him, making Tomáš fiancee' leave before he even has a chance to tell her "See ... I told you so."
So there's Vladimir, dying of cancer with his 25 years his junior lover Karla of 20 years who realizes that as soon as he dies she's screwed. There's Jaruna who's hovering around for no particularly clear reason except that Vlad was probably (once) the best ever-so-brief fling that she ever had, and Tomáš his son, who hates his dad, but realizes that "Wait, actually when my dad croaks, this house and its contents could actually come to me." Besides he comes look at the soon to be financially desperate Karla as perhaps even being "part of the package."
INTO THIS MESS, Jaruna actually comes to ask Vlad, if perhaps he'd like TO HAVE A PRIEST COME TO TALK TO HIM. Why would she be asking that? Well, she may have a horribly morally problematic "back-story" as well, but she's sincerely trying to be helpful and "nice" to the "best lover she ever had." Vlad's not interested. "Oh I know, the local priest here's an idiot, but there's a priest in a neighboring town that I've seen, besides he also has a PSYCHOLOGY DEGREE and HE helped me. Maybe he can help you too." Well, at least Vlad's not openly hostile now (perhaps the morphine's kicked in again ...). So she calls the priest.
The priest (played by Štefan Capko [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) does come. Here honestly the film does an excellent (if in its own way depressing job). How does the au courrant priest-with-his-psychology-degree arrive? ON BIKE as a cyclist in a nice BLACK spandex cyclist suit with a nice white stripe going down the middle of it. He's a bit overweight, so looks a bit ridiculous. But it's an interesting way of trying to "wear clerics" even if one's not (or perhaps even "trying to wear clerics" "in a different age" (So it may be sincere on his part, but it still looks odd).
So he arrives to talk to Vlad (in Czech it'd actually be Vlád'a). Vlad, of course, has no interest in talking to him. So the priest soon leaves. On his way out, Jaruna meets him at the door. She apologizes for Vlad's wasting the priest's time. The priest responds. "No it's never a waste of time." "But he wouldn't talk to you, so it didn't do him any good." "Yes, but it may have done you some good." (And in any case, the priest got himself a little "workout" having cycled-in and now back home to/from a neighboring town ...).
Eventually, of course, Vlad dies. He didn't want a funeral and no one, 'cept possibly Yaruna would have attended anyway. So they call the hearse. The undertakers arrive to take the body away. Presumably he'd be cremated, and his ashes, if no one picked them up, eventually dumped ... somewhere by somebody, presumably the State.
The last scene has Tomáš hitting-on Karla as they walk by a nearby pond. It's "as if [Vlad] never [existed] ..."
What then to make of a film like this? Well, the Czech Republic, which by various accounts has the highest percentage of professed atheists in Europe, knows a bit about the depressing nature of atheism as a lived reality. I've long found it fascinating that THE ARTISTIC COMMUNITY in the Czech Republic has REPEATEDLY taken-on the role of the "moral voice" in the Czech nation.
As depressing as this film was, IT WAS INTENTIONALLY SO. The obvious point of this movie was to ask viewers: DO YOU REALLY WANT LIFE (YOUR LIFE) TO BE LIKE THIS?
This is a society that MAY NOT BELIEVE, BUT WOULD HONESTLY WANT TO. There are historic reasons for the Czechs' atheism and even more specific problems with the Catholic Church. The more ancient historical crime was the Church's burning of the turn-of-the 15th century (!) Czech theologian John Hus [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* as a heretic, a betrayal from which the Czech nation has never really recovered (in part because the Catholic Church, in a doctrinal box regarding infallibility, has never been able to truly apologize).
More recent problems have involved passionate arguments over restoration of Catholic Church property that was confiscated (STOLEN) from the Church by the Communists during the Communist era. YES, _that_ was also a crime. But the Communists were also smart. They converted a lot of stolen Convents into various nursing homes and so forth. As a result, the Church arguing for the return (at least of the deeds) to such properties comes across as "wanting to take away the security of old (often also FORMER COMMUNIST) folks." YES IT WAS A CRIME TO STEAL THESE PROPERTIES FROM THE CHURCH, but's ALSO a PUBLIC RELATIONS "NO WIN" SITUATION and IT DISTRACTS from proclaiming a Message of Hope to a people that DOES REALIZE THAT WITHOUT _SOME RELIGION_ (GOD / THE GOSPEL) THERE IS NO HOPE.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:67-68)
So this film makes for an interesting conversation piece back in the CR and _can offer_ the publics outside the Czech Republic an opportunity to reflect on the abyss that awaits them too when a society has largely lost Hope.
* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser.
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