Wednesday, March 29, 2017

6th Annual Czech that Film Tour [2017] - Part 1


Among the films playing as part of the fifteen city 2017 Czech That Film Tour [Variety] that is passing through the United States over the next several months (the tour began here in Los Angeles over the past weekend and will end in Chicago in June), I was able to view and review the following:


The Teacher (orig. Učitelka) [2016] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*(directed by Jan Hřebejk [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, written by Petr Jarchovský [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) a CZECH / SLOVAK CO-PRODUCTION opened the 2017 Czech That Film Tour with, yes, LITERALLY "A BANG."  Director  Hřebejk [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* is certainly one of the best Czech directors of this generation and the story presented here is a compelling, even spine tingling, HORROR story (yet THOROUGHLY BELIEVABLE / WITHOUT NEED FOR ANY FAKE "MONSTERS").

Set in mid-1980s (hence still thoroughly Communist Era) Czechoslovakia it's a story that could TO SOME EXTENT _honestly_ happen just about anywhere.  "TO SOME EXTENT" is, of course, THE KEY to the compelling nature of this film.

Yes, TO SOME EXTENT this story could take place ANYWHERE, BUT ... mid-1980s Communist Era Czechoslovakia WASN'T JUST "ANYWHERE" ... it was a still thoroughly entrenched Communist country where it was VERY HARD for REGULAR PEOPLE to do _anything_ in the face of even CLEAR-AS-DAY (and thoroughly EVIL)  abuse of power. 

At issue was a _burrowed-in_ CORRUPT 8th grade teacher at an utterly random Bratislava, Slovakia grade school who would begin each school year "quite innocently" asking her students to introduce themselves and then SAY A WORD-OR-TWO about WHAT THEIR PARENTS DID FOR A LIVING while she carefully "took notes."  She would then EXTORT said parents throughout the ensuing school year, asking them for quite inappropriate favors and sometimes for utterly inappropriate ones, with, well, their kids' futures HANGING IN _HER_ BALANCE.

Ah, one may say, "My kid's not going to be a rocket scientist or neurosurgeon, so who cares?"  Well ... that may be, but maybe one's kid wants to be on a sports team, or drama club or simply wouldn't  want to be "on the authorities radar" THAT OBSCENELY EARLY IN LIFE.

A school teacher, anywhere, honestly has a lot of power ... A thoroughly burrowed-in, connected, knows-how-to-game-the-system, school teacher, here even a "Comrade" (also "by chance" head of the local Communist Party Committee ... so even the Principal of the School (!) was scared of her) HAS AN ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF POWER.

But WOULD YOU SUBMIT to "running contraband" between Bratislava and Moscow because (1) you happen "to work at the local airport" and (2) your kid could suddenly fail her grades at school and be put in a "remedial program" for the "mentally distressed" simply because "Teacher" had the power to do it  AND most heartbreakingly (3) HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN TO A THIRTEEN YEAR OLD (!) THAT HER GRADES HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH HER ACTUAL SCHOOL PERFORMANCE -- that literally "one plus one" equals IN HER CASE _whatever_ the teacher wants it to be.  And that "one plus one" could RETURN to being "two" ONLY AFTER HER PARENTS DO WHATEVER TEACHER WANTS THEM TO DO ...

Well, the film begins with said "scared to be doing this at all" Principal and her Assistant, calling in the parents of the students of said school teacher (played by Zuzana Mauréry [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) for an extraordinary meeting, after said thirteen year old girl TRIED TO COMMIT SUICIDE (is one really surprised?) because she simply _could not understand_ why she was failing RUSSIAN (of all subjects) when she DID HER HOMEWORK, DID "ALL HER DECLENSIONS" RIGHT and STILL WAS GETTING "FAILING GRADES" simply because "Teacher didn't seem to like her _now_  for some reason ..."

Many / most of the parents actually knew what was going on.  Many / most had been "visited upon" by said teacher asking for THEM for various favors as well, BUT ... WHAT THE HELL TO DO?  Standing up to her could just make the situation much worse, for them, and especially their kids.  But _now_ SOMEONE (ELSE'S) KID JUST NEARLY DIED BECAUSE OF THIS TEACHER.   What to do?  What honestly to do?

Again, this is one heck of a HORROR STORY without any (fake) MONSTERS -- 4+ Stars.  




Intimate Lighting (Intimní Osvětlení) [1965] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* (directed and cowritten by Ivan Passer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* along with Jaroslav Papoušek [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* and Václav Šašek [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) played as the LEGACY ENTRÉE for the  2017 Czech That Film Tour.

Each year, the CTF tour organizers offer a film like this to help Viewers appreciate the remarkable 100 year+ history of Czech Cinema (such a small country, yet with a heck of a lot of talent ;-).  In recent past years, the legacy entrées included the truly remarkably made medieval historical epic Marketa Lazarová [1967] (to prepare for the film's making, the acting troupe actually _spent a year_ living in the medieval conditions portrayed -- cooking / eating the same food, making and sleeping on the same beds, making / wearing the same clothes) and Invention for Destruction (orig. Vynález Skázy) [1958] a truly visually spectacular 1/2 animated 1/2 live-action (in 1958!) rendering of a Jules Verne story. 

The current "legacy entrée" was one of the first films of 1960s era Czechoslovakian "New Wave."  On hand here in Los Angeles, was the film's smiling director Ivan Passer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, now in his 80s talking of how the Czechslovakian "New Wave" [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* came to be: Basically he, life-long BFF Miloš Forman [wikip] [IMDb] and others came to the conclusion that to make _good movies_ in Communist-era Czechoslovakia they had to _get out of the studio_ and "go to the Provinces", USE non-professional actors, keep the lighting-and-sound as simple as possible (ALL THIS TO HONESTLY "keep them away" FROM PEOPLE WHO COULD "TURN THEM IN" ...) and then "keep things light" ... Passer noted that there was some random "Politiburo" member back then who said that he "liked comedies" and that "The People" should "be entertained."  So as long as one kept the people smiling ;-) ... one could say just about anything ;-) ... OMG ... I'VE BEEN SAYING THAT AND LIVING THAT IN MY MINISTRY AS A CATHOLIC PRIEST FOR YEARS ;-) ;-) ;-).

[I would add here that the whole creation of the the "Independent Film Movement" in the United States -- from Robert Redford's creation of the "Sundance Film Festival" / Robert Deniro's "Tribeca Film Festival" to film critics Roger Ebert / Gene Siskel's SUPPORT of "Independent Film" in their reviews (coming from "way out in Chicago...") -- was motivated by a similar if perhaps _somewhat less urgent_ need for film-makers to get away from the Politics / inevitable Restrictions (Censorship or one kind or another) of the Big Studios].

So then, the current film, Intimate Lighting (Intimní Osvětlení) [1965] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, is really just a SIMPLE story about a Czech family living out _somewhere_ "in the villages" (na venkově, na vesnici...) being visited ONE WEEKEND by some of their relatives "from the city" (Prague).  And it's not even a particularly "mean" picture (as it might have been if it had been made in the United States today).  It's just about two sets of relatives getting together one random weekend during the summer.  And they do have something in common ... they're all (classical) musicians.

Now this will stun many contemporary American viewers: How could it possibly be that "people in a village" could have a small chamber orchestra?  Well folks, THIS WAS ENTERTAINMENT in Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century.  EVERYBODY had SOMEBODY in the family (at times EVEN THE ENTIRE FAMILY) who could PLAY THE VIOLIN (or the Bass, Cello, etc) AND PLAY IT WELL.

So I found the film to be a joy.  I "see" my own beloved Czech relatives in it (as they were back in the 1960s-early 70s), and even the house in which the story plays-out with its garden (with its angrešt (gooseberry) shrubs ... a kind of indigenous "kiwi-fruit"-like bearing tree) looks _spectacularly_ like the house that my paternal grandfather DIED building for our family in a small town outside of Prague in the early 1960s.  So I can assure Readers here that this film is absolutely authentic. 

This then is a remarkable quality of this kind of "independent" film-making: It lends itself to a kind of simplicity / authenticity that larger productions, anywhere, often lack.  So congrats to the filmmakers (and to the organizers of CTF this year).  You picked a Legacy winner here ;-) -- 4+ Stars




The Devil's Mistress (orig. Lída Baarová) [2016] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* (directed by Filip Renč [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, screenplay by Ivan Hubač [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) tells _a good part of the story_ of CERTAINLY (!) the MOST CONTROVERSIAL CZECH FILM ACTRESS IN HISTORY -- Lída Baarová [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* [IMDb] (played excellently in the film by Táňa Pauhofová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) who, while striving to become (and actually largely succeeding in becoming) a quite successful actress in Babelsberg, then (Nazi...) Germany's "Hollywood" of the 1930s, entered into what became a truly infamous affair with Nazi Propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels (played in the film by Karl Markovics [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*).  Yup.  And by _all accounts_ Goebbels was apparently smitten enough by her that he was willing TO LEAVE HIS WIFE / CHILDREN, that is, HIS "PERFECT NAZI FAMILY," as well as HIS POST AS NAZI PROPAGANDA CHIEF (and even apparently offered to Hitler to take a random ... and distant ... post as "Nazi Germany's Ambassador to Japan") so that he could leave with Miss Baarová. 

Well this could not stand... and it did not.  Magda, Goebbels' wife (played in the film wonderfully by Lenka Vlasáková [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) took the matter up with Hitler himself (played in the film  _fascinatingly_, though apparently again _historically accurately_, as a really sexually troubled / repressed prude by Pavel Kříž [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*).   And so Hitler himself put the kabash on the whole matter.  Baarová's [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* [IMDb] film career in Nazi Germany was _summarily_ brought to an end (and it was also 1938, just as the Czechoslovak-German Sudeten Crisis was heating up as well ...).  She was able to return back to the (then) rump of Czecho-Slovakia in the months after the the German taking of the Sudetenland and apparently did some films in (Fascist) Italy during the War [IMDb].

After the War, Lída Baarová [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* was, needless to say, arrested and investigated by the (by then Communist dominated) post-War Czechoslovak authorities as a Traitor / Collaborator.  Worse, HER OWN MOTHER (played by Simona Stašová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) DIED UNDER INTERROGATION by the post-War Czech (again Communist dominated) authorities and her younger sister Zorka (played in the film by Anna Fialová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*), also an actress, though one who _never left Prague_ for "higher dreams" COMMITTED SUICIDE after being told that she would simply NEVER have an acting role again in post-War Czechoslovakia because she was ... Lida's sister.

For her part, Lída [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* ended-up "landing on her feet" after this several year post-War freefall, managed to get out of post-War Czechoslovakia before the February 1948 Communist Putsch definitively _slammed_ the Iron Curtain down on the frontiers of the country, and ... ended-up having _a moderately successful acting_ career IN FRANCO'S FASCIST DOMINATED SPAIN [IMDb] before retiring to (and apparently dying) in Salzburg, Austria in 2000 at the "ripe old age" of eighty six.  

Honestly, ONE _HELL_ OF A WOMAN ...  -- As for the film, honestly, it's top quality.  I do wish that the film explored more of what Lída Baarová [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* had thought during the 1938 Sudeten Crisis, as she was a _Czech actress_ in Nazi Germany (!) at the time (and HER PEOPLE were really _on the line_), but it's certainly ONE HELL of a compelling story about a woman who either made A SERIES of WORLD-CLASS BAD CHOICES (!) or one who EARLY-ON in her life really did make A PACT WITH THE DEVIL - 4 Stars. 


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

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