Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Václav Havel - A Life of Freedom [2014] (Život podle Václava Havla)

MPAA (UR / PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD.cz listing*
FDB.cz listing*
DocumentaryAlliance listing

Blesk.cz (ČTK) review*
ČeskáTelevize,cz (M. Třešňáková) review*
iDnes (M. Spáčilová) review*
informuji.cz (T. Pavelcová) review*

Václav Havel - A Life for Freedom [2014] (Život podle Václava Havla) [2014] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb]* [DA] (directed by Andrea Sedláčková [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]* [DA]) is a solid CZECH / FRENCH made at least in part "for TV" documentary about the life of Czech playwright, former Czech dissident then Czechoslovak afterwards Czech President and certainly Czech national hero Václav Havel [wikip] [IMDb].  A natural (and naturally _crowd pleasing_) part of the 2016 Czech That Film Tour organized annually by the Czech Ministry of Culture and the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States, it played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.  Honestly, what would a "Czech Film Tour" without an entry like this?   It's natural, it's honest.  Václav Havel simply means _a lot_ to the Czechs as a sort of literary/dramatic Jackie Robinson [wikip] crossed with Martin Luther King, Jr. [wikip]

So what does this documentary add that hasn't been already said about Václav Havel?   A non-Czech viewer who may not know much about Vaclav Havel would find the documentary blessedly light and hence accessible.  The main points of Havel's life are covered: 

He was born in 1936 to a quite wealthy Czech bourgeois family that was already focused on the arts, and then on specifically the "pop" or "commercial-arts."  In the 1920s, the Havel family built a state-of-the-art cultural complex The Lucerna (Lantern) on Wenceslas Square in Prague (basically Prague's main square and along with Národní Třida its Champs Élysées).  To this day, The Lucerna (Lantern) has remained a frequented cultural center with shops / cafés, a stunning art deco style multiplex movie theater and a state-of-the-art jazz club (I've been to both the beautiful movie theater and to the jazz club more than a few times during my visits to Prague).  The family also built Prague's famous Berrandov Studios in the hills at the south-east end of the city, which have been graced by the likes of Tom Cruise and Matt Damon in the years after the fall of communism as both some of the Mission Impossible and Bourne Identity movies have been filmed there. 

With the coming into power of the Communists in post-WW II Czechoslovakia in their Putsch of 1948, all this was taken from the family and like those of his class, Vaclav was initially _sentenced_ to a life of _programmed_ obscurity.  Denied _as a matter of course_ (regardless of ability or grades) to entry into a University, he was initially put on a track to become a carpenter and when he proved fearful of heights was transferred into a program that would have made him a laboratory technician.  But an artist he was.  So even as a teenager in a vocational program to become said carpenter / later lab technician, he started writing poetry.  Later he got involved in an unofficial drama group.  In the early 1960s, he caught notice of Czech writers and was invited speak at one of their Congresses.  With little to lose, he came to be appreciated at said Congresses for his bravery in saying things that "the official writers" could not.  In the late 1960s (when Czechoslovakia was liberalizing) he had an opportunity to visit the United States (not unlike Chinese dissident Ai WeiWei in the years prior to Tienanmen), came to enjoy the Peace Marches / hippie lifestyle, and returned to Czechoslovakia just in time for the August 1968 Soviet invasion which crushed this all for 20 years in his home country.

In the mid-1970s, he became a prominent defender of what would have otherwise been simply an obscure Czechoslovakian punk-rock band that called itself "The Plastic People of the Universe" but which found itself persecuted by the Communist authorities simply because its music and its musings were so strange.  Out of his and other soon-to-become artist "dissidents" came the famous Charter 1977 where said artists / writers made a written stand in favor of Freedom, above all of simple Freedom of Expression.  That earned Havel various years of prison and house arrest.  Fascinating photos and home movie clips are presented in the current documentary.

Then in 1989, he the leader of the Charistas became the natural leader of the Opposition that brought down the Communist government in Czechoslovakia and was then subsequently elected leader of first post-Communist Czechoslovakia and later when the country broke-up into the Czech and Slovak Republics, was elected repeated the President of the Czech Republic.

Yet an artist (playwright) at heart, his presidency was ever fascinating.  Upon being elected Czechoslovakia's first post-Communist (by the still Communist legislature) after giving the shortest inaugural speech in 40 years (1 1/2 minutes ;-), he simply crossed from the Presidential Palace at Prague's Castle into its main square to go to Prague's St. Vitus Cathedral, where he asked for and received a blessing from Prague's Cardinal Tomášek (Havel was not Catholic, but it seemed to him the right thing to do).   Footage of the Cardinal's blessing is shown in the documentary. 

Then his presidential court was always filled with interesting people.  Among the first dignitaries invited by Havel to Prague in those heady times after the fall of Communism were: (1) The Pope John Paul II, (2) The Dalai Lama and (3) Frank Zappa ;-).  Footage of visits to Havel's residence at Prague's Castle by the Dalai Lama and (separately) the Rolling Stones ;-) was shown in the documentary as well.

The film ended with footage from Vaclav Havel's only stab at making a film (remember he was born into a family that had built and owned Prague's Berrandov Studios), the film leaving Leaving (orig. Odchazeni) [2011] which he made/directed in the last years of his life after leaving the Presidency and in which he has his second wife, actress Dagmar "Dásha" Veškrnová-Havlová ÍMDb] [CSFD]
playing a lead role).  I had seen (and reviewed) the film when it played at the 2012 version of this Czech Film Tour ;-), and it was typical of Havel's and really post-WWII / Cold War era Central European playwriting ;-).  

Vaclav Havel was truly a remarkable man -- yes, an intellectual/dissident, later a President, but also honestly "a fun guy" (and yes, something of a womanizer as well ... which does sort of go hand-in-hand with with "being a fun guy" ... ;-)

Anyway, non-Czechs wanting to know something about Vaclav Havel would probably like this film because it is, in fact, quite light.  It dutifully presents the above biography of the man, but does so lightly and characteristically with some humor.

And many of the Czech critics (listed above) gave the documentary relatively high marks for "blessedly not including a lot of talking heads" ;-).  Again, the film is composed almost entirely of archival footage and photos, with voice-over (subtitled into English) by the director herself.  The advantage of this format (to a Czech audience) was obvious -- to many Czechs, Václav Havel [wikip] [IMDb] is almost like a family member.  Hence there really was no need (for the Czechs anyway) to have "a bunch of talking heads" expounding on his importance (or failings, etc).  We already know him / he's already "family" ;-),  For us, the film's like going through a family album ;-).

Anyway, great job! ;-)

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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