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April 14, 2017

Czech That Film II

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The Denver Film Society is presenting a series of recent Czech films, part of a traveling series entitled Czech That Film. The curious part of this series is that while it is comprised of eight films in total, none of the host cities will be showing all eight films. For readers of this blog who live outside of Denver, but within the U.S., definitely look into the link to see what films may be coming your way. My coverage of this series will be limited to those films scheduled for Denver. With the exception of The Snake Brothers, released in 2015, the films listed here were released in 2016.

Tiger Theory (Teorie tigre), the debut film from former journalist Radek Bajgar, sets its agenda within the first few minutes. An older man, a veterinarian, is seen sewing up a neutered male cat following surgery. Cut to a female university professor lecturing on why men have shorter life spans than women. The man and the woman are revealed to married, and the film is essentially a comic drama about men feeling emasculated by their wives, while the wives are certain they know what's best for their husbands. Tiger Theory was popular in the Czech Republic. Some of the deadpan humor is amusing, with swipes at the former Communist government for good measure. The title comes from the name of the cat, reportedly an amorous pet when on the loose. The score by Jiri Hajek,which would not sound out of place in a film with an American rural setting, made me think of Ry Cooder and Mark Knopfler.

The Noonday Witch (Polednice) is one of the highlights of this series. A mostly psychological horror film, the story takes its inspiration from a Slavic folktale about a witch that appears at the stroke of noon to take away an unruly child. This is an assured debut by Jiri Sadek. That the main characters are a young mother and daughter bears some fleeting resemblance to The Babadook, but unlike that film, as indicated in the title, the horror takes place under the sun of an August heatwave outside a rural village. Sadek has also mentioned the inspiration of Jaromil Jires and Valerie and her Week of Wonders, the classic Czech fantasy from 1970.

A mother and daughter move to a small town, the childhood home of the woman's late husband. There are questions about the husband's death, and the daughter is kept under the impression that the father is away on business. The mother is unnerved by an old woman who claims she is trying to protect the daughter. The school age daughter takes part in an unexplained ritual with several kids about her age running out into a field at about noon. Sadek doesn't overplay the creepiness at an efficient ninety minutes. This is one film worth seeking out.


The Teacher (Ucitelka) might benefit from a brief subtitle noting that the film takes place in 1983. The film takes place in Bratislava. The teacher, Maria Drazdechova, not only wants to know the names of her junior high age students, but also the occupation of her parents. The film is something of a parable about the abuse of power in Soviet era Czechoslovakia. Students and parents are do favors for the teacher in exchange for good grades. Most of the parents are easily persuaded to be helpful as the teacher is a ranking Communist party member. Several of the parents complain, with the bulk of the film cutting between scenes of the parents meeting, and flashbacks classroom scenes or the teacher's influencing of parents. Director Jan Hrebejk has made several films exploring the Communist past of the Czech Republic. Even if some of the specific political aspects of The Teacher are not understood,
patience is rewarded with a gut busting gag that must be seen and heard, that would be understood even by those unfamiliar with the Velvet Revolution.

I'm not as enthusiastic about The Snake Brothers (Kobry a uzovky) as others have been. The brothers, nicknamed Viper and Cobra, live in a small town outside of Prague. The characters in Jan Prusinovsky's film live in the margins, getting by. Cobra, a drug addict and thief, always has vague plans for making money. Viper is enlisted in running a clothing store that is a front for drug smuggling. What is of interest is that this is a view of the Czech Republic usually not seen, neither the glamour of Prague, nor the more pictorial countryside, but instead, a community of run-down shops and houses, as attractive as a third rate strip mall. The brothers are portrays by two actual actor brothers, Matej and Kristof Hadek, both of whom have received prizes for their performances.

I, Olga Hepnarova (Ja, Olga Hepnarova) comes with the most advanced critical acclaim. Austere, filmed in black and white, the story is based on true events. Directors Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda follow Hepnarova from the mid-Sixties through 1973, when she drove through a crowd of pedestrians in Prague, up until her death by hanging in 1975. Hepnarova was the last woman to receive capital punishment in Czechoslovakia. Aspects about Hepnarova's life, her reasons for her crime, and death are still controversial and have even inspired a website.

Michalina Olszanska, recently seen as the vampire mermaid, Gold, in The Lure, takes on the title role of the troubled young woman. Parts of the Hepnarova's story are fictionalized, while the quotes from letters provided to two newspapers, explaining her anger at the world, are taken verbatim. Olga Hepnarova casts herself as a victim of bullying, as well as sexual and emotional abuse. As such, the film suggests that Hepnarova would also deliberately be self-destructive, and chose to be the perpetual outsider. The few human connections made include a couple of flings with other young women, and an older man, a drinking buddy, as close to a positive father figure in her brief life. The filmmakers, to their credit, keep enough distance to allow for open ended questions about Hepnarova's life and her response, labeling herself with the German word "Prugelknabe", also translated as scapegoat or doormat. The final shot of the film, of Hepnarova's family, offers a chilling coda to her story.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 14, 2017 10:00 AM