• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (18/11/2022)

(An overview of the films showing at the 26th Made in Prague Festival)


Now in its 26th edition, Made in Prague is a celebration of all aspects of Czech culture. Alongside events at Tate Modern, the Science Museum, and the Royal Institution, there are also screenings at various venues across London until 3 December.


The pick of the programme is Jan Švankmajer's Kunstkamera, which takes viewers on a guided tour of the collection of paintings, puppets, artefacts, and curios that the Surrealist animator has assembled at Horní Stankov, which doubles as his studio and home. Also available are Adam Koloman Rybanský's Somewhere Over the Chemtrails, which centres on an Easter mystery involving a pair of volunteer firefighters; and Peter Kerekes's 107 Mothers, which joins a prisoner in the maternity unit of a correctional facility in Odessa.


Miloš Forman's The Fireman's Ball (1967) is a clear influence on Michal Nohejl's debut feature, Occupation. Set during the `normalisation' period that followed the Prague Spring, this darkly satirical chamber drama centres on the backstage fallout following a performance of a propagandist play about resistance hero Julius Fucik. Based on an anecdote about two 1960s Czechs who donned Nazi uniforms in order to convince a drunken Soviet soldier that the Second World War had not ended, it was co-scripted by author Marek Šindelka and graphic novelist Vojtech Mašek.


Another treat is the triptych assembled by Second Run to mark the centenary of composer Zdenek Liška. A prolific artist whose 220-odd screen credits earned him comparisons with Ennio Morricone, Liška collaborated regularly with Jan Švankmajer, as well as some of the leading lights of the Czech Film Miracle in the 1960s.


Available via the BFI Player, the selection can be accessed as part of a subscription free trial, with an additional months being made available through the festival with a special voucher code (MadeInPrague22). In addition to Karel Zeman's paean to Jules Verne, Invention For Destruction (1958), the slate also includes František Vlácil's visionary treatise on the 17th-century clash between religion and science, The Devil's Trap (1961), and Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos's The Shop on the High Street (1965), a poignant reflection on the Holocaust that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.


BETHLEHEM LIGHT.


Jan Sverák has been collaborating with his writer-actor father, Zdenek, since making his feature bow with Elementary School (1991). In addition to the Oscar-winning Kolya (1995), they have also teamed on such fine films as Dark Blue World (2001), Empties (2007), and Barefoot (2017). They return with Bethlehem Light, a rumination on creativity, humility, and self-reconciliation that is based on three of Zdenek's short stories: `Bethlehem Light', `Photograph', and `Ruslan and Ludmila'.


Relieved that a barefooted trip in a shroud to the undertaker was only a dream, writer Karel Sejnoha (Zdenek Sverák) gets an idea for a new story while lunching with his wife, Helena (Daniela Kolárová ). It concerns Matej (Vojtech Kotek), who can't persuade pharmacy assistant Vendula Velebová (Tereza Ramba) to go on a date. The film rewinds between failed attempts until Matej starts following Karel around to ask for a happy ending.


Bohumil (Vladimír Javorský) and his wife, Jarmila (Jitka Cvancarová), also keep popping up to request a miracle that will cure their son, Vojta (Martin Polisenský), who has Down's Syndrome. Helena can't see the characters, who come to Karel's study and pile into backseat of the car on shopping expeditions. Matej even interrupts a bath to ask if he can change his name to Mário Písecký and become a sharpshooting photographer in order to impress Vendula.


Karel is also intrigued by Bakalár (Ondrej Vetchý ), a motor mechanic who doubles as a faith healer, who is using onions in an attempt to cure Ludmila (Patricia Schumann) of her cancer. She acquired powers from the Virgin Mary and Karel decides to write about her after he sees her pray to extinguish a fire aboard a Russian cargo plane.


Meanwhile, Vendula has fallen for Mário and moved into the cluttered studio that she insists on tidying to suit herself. However, she is jealous of Mása (Alena Doláková), who made a play for Mário while he was waiting for Vendula in a bistro across from the pharmacy (where Karel just happens to be the waiter). Helena is also envious of the time that Karel spends with his characters and loses patience shortly after he has a turn and has to call Ludmila to help him after he locks his pills inside his car.


With Bohumil and Mása pestering him to change their storylines and Mário worried that he'll have to stop philandering in order to keep Vendula, Karel fails to notice that Helena is becoming increasingly disillusioned with him. After he traps her finger in the car door on a shopping trip, she hisses that she hates him and he has a nightmare that she is being measured for her coffin. Vowing to pay her more attention, he assembles his characters and urges them to do the best they can until he can return to them.


Following a day out, however, Karel returns to find that Vendula has tried to bean Mário with an iron and stab him with some scissors. He tries to explain his feelings in a letter and then changes his mind about sending it. Getting impatient, Bohumil's family corner Karel at Bakalár's garage and ask Ludmilla for a miracle. However, Jarmila doesn't want Vojta to change and she turns down the chance of a miracle.


Desperate to prevent Vendula from reading his letter, Mário holds up two postmen and is jailed. He receives a letter from Vendula announcing her marriage and he wishes he had remained as Mátej. Reflecting his quandary is the fact that Karel wants Helena's approval for his stories, but she doesn't want to read them and informs him that he has never been able to understand women. He tries to make amends by ending Bohumil's story with a deception that Vojta has not blown out the candle lit from a lantern that has been brought to Prague from Israel. Yet, as Karel and his characters gather to listen to Helena playing the piano, the undertakers loom up to the patio doors and leer inside.


Faint echoes of Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction (2006) reverberate around this genial, if somewhat lightweight exploration of life and art. Zdenek Sverák is on fine form, as the author struggling not only to write about a world that has changed without him noticing, but to realise that he has allowed himself to drift apart from his wife. But the mini-narratives on the theme of `be careful what you wish for' are not particularly engrossing or revealing of human nature. Indeed, the Ludmilla thread feels rather like an afterthought.


Nevertheless, the support playing is splendid, with Daniela Kolárová accidentally beckoning a handsome stranger while exercising her damaged finger, Tereza Ramba puffing at her fringe in frustration, and Martin Polisenský understanding more about the world than his parents or his woodwork teacher give him credit for. Vojtech Kotek amuses as the chauvinist getting his comeuppance, while Vladimír Javorský brings poignancy, as the father striving to put right what's not actually wrong.


Abetted by regulars like cinematographer Vladimír Smutný and production designer Jan Vlasák, Jan Sverák directs with a deceptive whimsicality. The rewind effect used to depict Mátej's pathetic pharmacy chat-up lines is matched by some droll cross-cuts, as son František Sverák takes over smoothly from longtime editor Alois Fisarek. Ondrej Soukup's score is similarly jaunty in reminding us that the Sveráks (with a little help from Jaroslav Uhlír) presented us with a musical triptych in The Three Brothers (2014).


BIRD ATLAS.


Born in Ljubljana, but based in Prague since studying at FAMU, Slovenian Olmo Omerzu is steadily building a reputation for himself. Following his graduation short, A Night Too Young (2012), and his feature bow, A Family Film (2015), he won the Best Director prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival with Winter Flies (2018). He took another tilt at the Crystal Globe with Bird Atlas, a biting corporate satire that is leavened throughout with avian wisdom.


Having discovered a major financial shortfall at his Aron technology company, Ivo Rona (Miroslav Donutil) is hospitalised after a fainting fit reveals a major heart problem. He has remained in charge because he doesn't believe that son, Martin (Martin Pechlát), and son-in-law, David (Vojtech Kotek), are capable of taking over. Daughter Eva (Pavla Beretová) disapproves of Martin taking Ivo's phone, but he insists it's for the best, especially while accountant Marie (Alena Mihulová) is investigating the Kc41 million debt problem.


Despite worrying about her daughter, Nina (Eliska Krenková), Marie has gone on a trip to a mountain resort to meet Benjamin (David Bowles), her online boyfriend who is on leave from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Ignoring the advice being given to him by the birds in a tree outside his room, Ivo discharges himself from hospital and threatens Nina with the police unless she tells him where Marie has gone. They arrive in the middle of the night and Martin and David are shocked to discover that Marie has embezzled the money because she felt betrayed by Ivo after a long affair. However, Benjamin claims to have gone on a mission against the Taliban and can't be contacted about the cash.


Marie goes to prison and remains in denial that Benjamin is a catfish whose story is a tissue of lies designed to con her. Nina pleads with Ivo to drop the case against her mother, as she is as much a victim as he is. But he is convinced that someone close to him is behind the scam and changes his will to leave all his assets to Eva's infant son. Martin is furious and exposes Ivo's numerous infidelities before quitting the company he feels Ivo has always valued more than his family.


In court, Marie learns that an American soldier had his identity stolen to create the character that duped her. Ivo dies in court before the verdict is given and we learn from chattering birds that she was sentenced to seven years. As the film ends, a murmuration rises from a tree and we are left to ponder who was behind the deception and pocketed the money.


Cannily scripted by Omerzu and Petr Pycha, this sophisticated soap touches upon several modern evils, as a workaholic capitalist and neglectful father's sins come home to roost. There's nothing particularly insightful about the discussions of fatcat greed, impending ecological calamity, identity theft, and the perils of social media. But the threads are neatly woven. while the refusal to judge either Ivo or Marie allows Miroslav Donutil and Alena Mihulová to give nuanced performances of contrasting impassivity.


Antonin Silar's interiors, Lukás Milota's cinematography, and Jana Vlcková's editing are all polished, while Monika Omerzu Midriaková's score reinforces the playfulness that is encapsulated by the running commentary provided by the birds who may not sow or reap, but seem to have a pretty sharp appreciation of human society.


EROTIKON.


Gustav Machatý will always be best remembered for Ecstasy (1933), if only because 19 year-old Hedy Kiesler's naked run through the forest reportedly made it Adolf Hitler's favourite film. However, Machatý's use of sensual imagery is much more subtle and arousing in his silent masterpiece, Erotikon (1929).


Stranded in a provincial backwater after missing his train to Prague, globe-trotting playboy George Sidney (Olaf Fjord) seduces Andrea (Ita Rina), the daughter of the local stationmaster (Karel Schleichert), only to abandon her next day. Discovering she is pregnant, Andrea leaves home to avoid a scandal. The child is stillborn, however, and Andrea drifts into a marriage with Jan (Luigi Serventi), who rescues her from a rapist. Any hope of happiness seems short lived, however, as Andrea runs into Sidney, who is embroiled in a ménage with bottle blonde Gilda (Charlotte Susa) and her jealous husband, Hilbert (Theodor Pištek).


Relying only rarely on intertitles, this is a masterclass in visual suggestion. The night of passion is thrillingly voluptuous 80 years on, with Vaclav Vich's subjective camera approximating Rina's views of the walls and ceiling of her bedroom as she is transported to ever-greater levels of rapture by the experienced Fjord. Particularly memorable is the way in which Machatý plays light upon Rina's face as she surrenders to sensation, while the moment of climax is mischievously depicted as two raindrops merging into one on the window pane. However, the chess match between Serventi and Fjord, with Rina perched on the arm of her husband's chair, is also exemplary.


THE LAST RACE.


Having paid fulsome tribute to a Czech cinematic genius in the documentary, Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (2015), Tomáš Hodan reflects upon the fate of another national icon in his feature bow, The Last Race. Switching between time frames, this biopic of skiier Bohumil Hanc corrects the Communist version of a 1913 Krkonoše challenge that was enshrined in propagandist mythology by Cenek Duba's Sons of the Mountains (1956).


In 1959, Emerich Rath (Oldrich Kaiser) takes a job as a stoker at a Czechoslovakian skiing resort in the Great Mountains. The manager (Jan Hájek) takes exception to the fact that Rath is German vegetarian who arrived barefoot in the snow. But his partner (Gabriela Pyšná) is just glad to have someone to tend the boilers during the season.


Rath explains that he was a regular in the mountains before the Great War, when they were part of the Kingdom of Bohemia within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The younger Rath (Marek Adamczyk) lived in Prague, but regularly came to ski with Bohumil Hanc (Kryštof Hádek) and Václav Vrbata (Vladimír Pokorný), whose race with Norwegian Ingvald Smith-Kielland (Simon Kirschner) causes outrage among the Germanic Austrians, who deeply resent the existence of a Czech skiing association under Jan Buchar (Vladimír Javorský) and cause a scene at the village tavern after Hanc wins a race. He doesn't have time to celebrate, however, as he works as a weaver with his pregnant wife, Slavena (Judit Bárdos).


She loses her baby while Hanc is rehearsing a Czech play in the village hall and he refuses to ski so he can take care of her. However, the Olympic committee has agreed to let the Czechs ski under their own banner at the 1912 Stockholm Games and everyone is eager for Hanc to compete.


Back in 1959, the resort manager resents having a German billeted upon him, especially when he starts doing tricks on wooden skis to amuse the guests. A letter from the IOC causes further consternation, as Rath has been invited as a guest of honour and the manager worries that the authorities will start prying into incidents in his past. His wife is even more eager for Rath to leave, but he keeps training on a cycling machine so that he can ride to Rome for the Olympics.


In 1912, Rath turns down an offer from Archduke Charles to become an army ski instructor. Slavena is pregnant again and she is worried he will exhaust himself putting Josef Feistauer (Jan Nedbal) through a rigorous training regime to compete against Oswald Bartel (Bastian Beyer) in Sweden. She refuses to let him go, but there is no stopping him when Bartel signs up for a 50km race in the Great Mountains on 24 March 1913 and Hanc leaves without telling Slavena that he's racing.


Unpredictable weather conditions prompt a last-minute change in the route, but Hanc is unconcerned. Indeed, he's delighted to find Rath is also racing, albeit under an assumed name to prevent any anti-German backlash. As it's spring and they fear the snow will melt, they start early and Hanc doesn't bother with a coat. However, conditions soon deteriorate and it becomes heavy going. Visibility diminishes, as a storm whips up and the rest of the competitors return to the tavern. Hanc alone continues, even though he has been declared the winner and is unaware that the race is off.


A woodsman on the route gives him a pair of gloves and wishes him speed, as there is no way of communicating with the spotters on the course. One reports seeing Hanc when he returns and a search party heads out after Rath collapses at the tavern after his exertions carrying Hanc on his back. When the stretcher crew find Hanc, he is rushed back to the tavern, but there is nothing the doctor can do to save him.


Noticing that Hanc is wearing a hat and coat, they realise that somebody must have tried to help him and another team sets off to find him. Slavena arrives as Hanc and Vrbata's bodies are being taken back to the village. A monument was later raised to them, with no mention of Rath. But he concludes his story to the lodge manager with self-recrimination, as he should have stayed with Hanc until help came.


The manager commends his courage and makes a report recommending that Rath is allowed to go to Rome. But the application is rejected and Rath leaves to avoid causing a fellow prisoner under the regime any further trouble. He passes the monument, as he leaves and clutches the whistle that he had given Hanc to signal for help and which had been buried in the snow until he had gone to place a simple wooden cross to mark where his friend had fallen.


A closing caption reveals that Hanc competed at three Olympics and was a remarkable sportsman across several disciplines. Yet, he died destitute in 1962 and it's only now that his role in trying to save a Czech hero is being recognised because the Communist regime suppressed mention of him after the horrors of the Second World War.


While it laudably restores Emerich Rath's place in a fabled story, this sincere biopic fails to provide sufficient background detail to allow those unfamiliar with Czech-German antagonisms in either 1913 or 1959 to grasp the reality of Rath's situation. Too many peripheral characters are introduced without their significance being explained, notably those connected with the Czech Ski Association. This becomes a particular problem when they try to coerce Slavena into letting Hanc go to Stockholm and when they await news of his progress on the 50km course.


The rivalry between Hanc and Bartel is also undersold, while more distinction should have been made between the Austrians who had ruled in 1913 and the Germans who had conquered in 1939. The mystery behind the manager's anxiety also needs further detail, as the audience never knows what kind of peril he might be in and how much he is putting his new life at risk to support the older Rath.


For all the shortcomings in Hodan's screenplay, he and cinematographer Jan Baset Strítežský make evocative use of the Krkonoše setting and ably convey the treachery of the conditions on that fateful March day. The performances are solid, despite the slenderness of the characterisation, while Jakub Kudlác's score matches the relentlessly lashing swirls of the snowstorm. Almost akin to a crash course in the Bergfilme genre, this does its best work in warning against antagonism between nationalities in commemorating an act of selfless friendship.


LEAVING TO REMAIN.


Having followed the Kovac family from Slovakia in Somewhere Better (2003), documentarist Mira Erdevicki catches up with three Roma migrants who have been living in Britain for a number of years in Leaving to Remain. A Serbian who served as Emir Kusturica's assistant on Underground (1995), Erdevicki has previously explored the Roma plight in Strangers in Their Own Land (1995) and Black and White in Colour (1999), which profiled the great Roma singer, Véra Bílá.


Since 1990, over 200,000 Roma have settled in Britain. Many have been able to make good lives for themselves and their families. But Brexit threatens to change the situation for Ondrej Oláh from Slovakia and Petr Torák and Denisa Gannon from the Czech Republic. This film follows them as the reality of the 2016 vote begins to bite and the country goes into lockdown during Covid.


Despite being billeted in a special needs school in Slovakia, Ondrej thrived at Babington Academy in Leicester, where he is now employed as a teaching assistant and his sister (who has cerebral palsy) is in full-time education. In the same city, Denisa managed to qualify as a lawyer while working as a cleaner and she is now part of the Roma Role Model Project. Having been regularly beaten up by skinheads in Czechia, Petr and his parents came to the UK. He worked as a policeman in Peterborough and received the MBE before focussing on charitable work and setting up a community centre for Roma children.


Ondrej supervises a visit to Babington from Peter Krajnák, who is the Slovak Education Minister, who wants tips on how to improve Roma performance in schools. Denisa explains how she married a martial arts teacher, while Petr and his optician wife, Lucy, discuss why they have remained in Britain rather than returning to Roztoky u Prahy.


They pay a visit to Lucy's family, while Denisa heads back to Novy Bydzov to see her ailing parents. She is dismayed to see that the lot of Roma in the region has not changed in the 15 years since she left, even though the European Court of Human Rights has outlawed segregation in schools.


When Covid strikes, Denisa finds herself dealing with numerous passport applications for people fearing they will be sent home because the UK is no longer part of the EU. Petr has opened a testing centre at the youth club and delivers groceries for those in need.

Ondrej has started a degree in psychology and is also working part-time at a meat-packing factory. His boss sings his praises, as he has risen to the management ranks in record time.


As life returns to something approaching normal, Ondrej drives to Rimavská Sobot in Slovakia. He shows how Roma settlements have been placed outside the towns and introduces us to his grandfather and Jessica, who has been his girlfriend for three years. They get married so she can return with him to Britain, although her parents are not happy with the arrangement.


At Christmas, Ondrej gets together with his family, while Petr has to isolate after a positive test. Denisa receives news that her mother has fainted and has an anxious wait, while also keeping up with her cases and looking after teenage son Hynek and her young daughter with her new husband. Fortunately, her mother recovers, while Ondrej and Jessica discover they are pregnant, while he is trying to finish his exams and secure her residency papers.


Petr has been asked to open an honorary consulate at his community centre and the Czech ambassador attends the opening and commends him for his work for the Roma in Peterborough. Denisa is battling deadlines for EU residency applications, while Hynek is about to leave for university to study film production. Having graduated with a first, Ondrej has decided to stay on, while Petr has ambitions to become a member of the House of Lords to ensure the Roma have a voice in high places.


Clearly, Erdevicki is fortunate in having selected three success stories who make remarkable contributions to the Roma community in exceptional times. Denisa and Petr are heroic in their selflessness, while Ondrej demonstrates for audiences in Czechia and Slovakia how potential can be fulfilled if given the chance to flourish. But it might have been useful to see how someone at the struggling end of the scale coped with Covid and Brexit and discover whether they are targeted by either bureaucrats or bigots.


Nevertheless, this makes for instructive viewing, with editors David Charap and Krasimira Velitchkova making narrative sense of the footage recorded by both Erdevicki's crew and by the subjects themselves on their phones and the 4K cameras they were sent during the pandemic. A lot of British viewers might also learn something about the value of education and the supportive nature of family and community, while also realising how fortunate they are to live in rich, democratic, multicultural country that, for all its myriad faults, offers a chance to everyone willing to take it.


THE WEBSTERS MOVIE


Born in Žilina in 1974, Slovakian animator Katarína Kerekesová obtained a doctorate at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. Following her debut short, Lovers Without Clothes (1997), she made the featurette, Origins of the World (2002), and the musical, Stones (2010). An illustrator, as well as an animator, Kerekesová found her niche with the TV series Mimi & Lisa (2012) and The Websters (2017-19), which were based on a series of popular books. Now, the spider family gets to go on its biggest adventure to date in The Websters Movie.


Six year-old Lili Webster (Zuzana Porubjaková) is a spider who lives in a web in the lift machine room at the top of a tall building with her parents, Rafael (Boris Farkas) and Alma (Henrieta Mickovicová), grandparents Walter and Matilda (both Richard Stanke), and her emo teenage brother, Hugo (Kamil Kollarik). As it's her turn to be trip leader, she suggests taking the lift down to the courtyard to fly her new kite. Nothing goes quite according to plan, however, and Lili, Alma and Walter have to hide in a crack in the wall to avoid a passing human girl (Matilda Strussová). Everyone meets up on a plant in the window box and Lili flies a paper cocktail parasol in the sunset breeze using some twine that Rafael had picked up on his travels.


The girl in the red dress finds Lili's little blue kite and places it under a jam jar for safe keeping. Bored with helping Alma hang out the washing, Lili goes with her friend Emma (Olga Belesová) to feed the flies on her mother's farm. While playing hide-and-seek, however, Lili lets the insects escape and they bloat after gorging in a dustbin. She and Emma cling on, as the flies float into the room where Rafael has his fly canning apparatus and he saves the day by squeezing the flies through his conveyor belt until they regain their usual size.


Lili hops down to the yard and sees the girl tie a thread to the kite. As she skips upstairs, however, she it floats off through a window and Lili nearly gets stomped on, as the girl chases after it. She puts it back under the jar, but Lili is delighted to learn her hopscotch steps, as she heads back indoors.


One day, Rafael and Hugo go fishing for months in some flour bags in the storeroom. Lili has never tried fishing before and manages to fall into an open bag, where she finds some moth larvae having a nap. When her father calls out to her, he wakes the babies and Hugo has to jump down to help her rock them back to sleep. When the mother moth lands on his head, Lili grabs Hugo's camera and gets an action photo to show the rest of the family.


While working on a school project with her friends, Lili meets Momo, who has come to live in the building after a close encounter with some hungry frogs at the Big Puddle. Emma had been suspicious of the newcomer, but she welcomes him to the group after hearing him tell Walter of his narrow escape.


Still hoping to recover her kite, which the girl has dropped through a grid grille, Lili gets a fright in the darkness. Hugo tells her about fireflies and she goes on the spider worldwide web to find a picture. Someone called `Nephila' offers to swap her a firefly for a loan of Hugo's peanut shell guitar and Lili allows herself to be tricked. But Walter and Matilda save the day by tracking Hugo's classmate Rubius to his lair and he is punished by the school to make grocery deliveries to learn his lesson.


Armed with a firefly, Lili lowers herself through the grille. Just at that moment, the girl kneels down with a torch and a hook in the hope of snagging the kite. Feeling she can trust the human, Lili hops on to the hook and sits in the palm of the girl's hand, as she blows gently so that the kite takes flight.


Adroitly blending live-action backdrops and human activity with CGI insects, this is a charming series of stories that will delight younger viewers. The Websters live in an ingenious world built from gossamer and bric-a-brac, while each has a readily identifiable trait. Matilda likes to eat, Walter is fond of reminiscing, Alma is house-proud, and Rafael is inventive. Hugo aspires to be a rebel, but he rallies round to help Lili when her curiosity lands her in an endless round of scrapes.


Breezily voiced by Zuzana Porubjaková, Lili has an infectious zest for life and a love for her family that should win over the grown-ups, too. Having illustrated a number of books with author Vanda Rozenbergová and directed the 12 episodes in the TV series, Kerekesová is clearly at home with the Websters and it would be nice to see more of them soon.


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