Ask any tourist what sights struck them in Prague and they’ll more often than not regale you with their bemusement over the Žižkov Television Tower, a bizarre communist-era needle of high-tech architecture plunging up through the skyline like an alien rocketship, and the giant fibreglass babies with stamped-in faces by sculptor David Černý crawling up its sides. As a deliciously subversive visual rejoinder to oppressive forces, these barcode babies suggest an enduring Czech penchant for madcap, surrealistic provocation – an irreverent spirit that might go part of the way toward explaining the famed (or notorious, depending on your tastes) opening ceremonies of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the nation’s biggest cinema event and the world’s primary showcase for cinema from Central and Eastern Europe. Every year, these eschew starched formality, instead laying on outlandish choreographed spectacle. This year, the show was slasher-themed. A butcher in a Hannibal Lecter mask sharpened his cleaver on stage as the orchestra played. Behind, 21 blood-streaked, barely-clad women struggled behind plastic in neon glare as if in a tiered display case, as an opera singer’s voice hit Gothic heights. Gala host Mark Eben quipped that the Argento-style scene resembled today’s global politics. Whether guests found it resonantly timely in its garish horror or retrograde in its gender politics, the organisers’ pleasure in bucking staid tradition was unmistakable.

The festival has an esteemed history going back to 1946, making it one of the world’s oldest, and the fact it was politically railroaded into alternating with the Moscow International Film Festival from 1959 until just after the fall of the Soviet Union (making this edition the 52nd) may also explain why it’s now dead-set on offering a welcome on the Czechs’ own iconoclastic terms. The region’s changeable history and contradictions are also writ large in the architecture of the west Bohemian spa town it takes place in, a getaway distinguished in the 19th Century literary imagination which Goethe and Beethoven used to stroll through between treatments, and which has now mostly been bought up by wealthy Russians. The central festival hub is the Hotel Thermal, an imposing brutalist mass of concrete built as a retreat for the former communist regime’s bigwigs, that remains plonked amidst the woodland and the old-world, candy-coloured neo-Baroque elegance that is testament to another era. The lavish Grandhotel Pupp, a main party venue of the festival, was one of the inspirations behind Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Its form of grandeur may suggest exclusivity, but the city doubles as a camping ground welcoming students for the duration of the festival, making it a bustling mixture of red carpet dazzle and local, down-to-earth holidaying mood.

The program was as ever a lively mixed bag. This year, the highlight of its thoughtfully revisited classics was a ten-film tribute to the sublimely haunting and haunted work of Japanese auteur Kenji Mizoguchi. In its out-of-competition slots Karlovy Vary is usually a strong showcase for US indies and this edition was no exception, featuring some of the most talked-about films off the back of Cannes and Sundance. Sofia Coppola’s anaemic re-envisioning of Don Siegel’s 1971 The Beguiled was there, deliciously arch in its delivery but risking little so that her foray into sensual Southern Gothic ultimately felt just too nice, and too pretty. On the other hand, the raw energy so often missing from American indie filmmaking of late was back in spades in the Safdie brothers’ grimy New York heist thriller Good Time. Far from being overwhelmed or sanitised by Robert Pattinson’s reluctant aura of celebrity, the actor succeeded in injecting grit back into his image in a turn that Abel Ferrara would surely have applauded. More idiosyncratic but inertly contrived is A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s take on how space is inhabited by the past. While it found many ardent fans, it never transcends quirk for anything more profound in its fashioning of an afterlife of lonely, sheet-wearing ghosts, as much as its inventive visual jokes charm. While there’s no more pleasant spot to catch up on such films than Karlovy Vary, it’s the festival’s world premieres that offer the most excitement, and the chance to update the constellation of the region’s brightest stars.

Strong Czech-Slovak Showing

Křižáček

Křižáček (Little Crusader)

A Czech director won top honours and carried home the Crystal Globe for best film, to local delight. Václav Kadrnka’s quietly oneiric, alluringly strange take on the medieval quest Křižáček (Little Crusader) was inspired by a 19th-century poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický. It sees an ageing knight (Karel Roden) set off on his horse into the forest on the tail of his young son Jenik (Matouš John), who has got it into his head that he must find the Holy Land. The inability to stop time’s advance and with it his dominion over his son weighs heavily on the rider, whose campfire visions unnerve him. It’s the second feature of FAMU graduate Kadrnka, whose Osmdesát dopisu (Eighty Letters) screened at the Berlinale in 2011 but largely failed to engage with its personal but highly stylised, letter-based story of defection and divided family in the years of Soviet domination. With Little Crusader Kadrnka again embraces unhurried formalism, but masterfully transcends his debut. In its sparse dialogue and measured scope it has a humility and simplicity about it that grounds its mysticism in the smallest of human gestures, even as editing surrealistically startles us out of time, and faces are spiritually framed by halos of light and impenetrable darkness. It’s that rare kind of film that doesn’t try to be more than what it is – and in doing so nears the sublime.

Unawarded in the documentary competition but one of the more divisive and talked-about films of the festival, Vit Klusák’s Svét podle Daliborka (The White World According to Daliborek) was another strong world premiere that cemented an upbeat year for Czech-Slovak co-productions. German political philosopher Hannah Arendt hit on a profound truth with her theory of the banality of evil in relation to the Holocaust, noting the unexceptional nature of many capable of horrific deeds. She’s not overtly referenced in a film that is thin all around on contextualising pointers. But shaven-headed industrial worker Dalibor K., born after her time, idealises the deeds of the Nazis and has a lumpen, hapless stupidity about him that would seem in keeping with her ideas. Pushing 40, he lives in the small city of Prostějov with his chain-smoking mother Vera and spends his downtime making home videos of his nationalistic bedroom rants and self-penned misogynistic songs to post on YouTube.

When his mum hooks up with new boyfriend Vladimir on an online dating site, Daliborek is petulantly resentful of this rival for his attention – until this quasi-father figure gifts him an Iron Cross ring and drops extremist slurs of Jews and immigrants around the kitchen table. The grotesque trashiness of this household is at first played more for disparaging laughter than chills, which on the one hand could be seen to diminish the threat of their racist views (a running punchline is that Daliborek is a passive, inept softie who has barely been with a woman or raised his voice beyond all his posturing), but on the other it renders unintended glamourisation impossible. Indeed, they are such prosaically unappealing, pathetically easy targets that the lampoon does begin to grow thin, since Klusák has neither the merciless grasp of bottom-barrel comedic behavioural horror of a director like Todd Solondz or the flair for slick social satire of Ulrich Seidl, two masters of the perverse-loser strain of cinema. Seidl especially does seem a touchstone here – especially in the staged feel of some of the scenes and “documentary play” genre label attributed to the film that leave us wondering about the extent of director and subject collusion (the exhibitionism Dailborek possesses explains some but not all of the reality TV-style access granted to a director clearly not out to glorify him). Towards the end the film shifts gear to a more serious, ethically charged tone as the motley group embark on a field trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and here the inconsistencies between kitchen talk and public personae offer some of the most thought-provoking aspects of a film interested in racism as a performative phenomenon. The boldly singular framing of this excursion is set into even sharper focus if watched as a companion piece to Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s exemplary documentary Austerlitz, also screening at the festival, which couldn’t be more different in its rigorously observational take on modern-day concentration camp visitors and historical disengagement. Is it possible to make a Holocaust film that bears witness through a (discredited) gaze of denial? Klusák’s film – while not entirely successful – is of interest even for the fact that the director has tried. 

Russian Discoveries

How Viktor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home

Kak Vitka Chesnok vez Lecha Shtyrya v dom invalidov (How Viktor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home)

The greatest thrill of Karlovy Vary is hitting upon a bold new voice in a feature debut, and the best place to seek this out is invariably competition program East of the West. This year, the film with the most madcap name in the festival – well, if you discount documentary Ouăle lui Tarzan (Tarzan’s Testicles) – was granted top honours by the section’s jury. Kak Vitka Chesnok vez Lecha Shtyrya v dom invalidov (How Viktor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home) is the first feature of young Russian director Alexander Hant, a graduate of Moscow film school VGIK. It’s an exuberant, frenetic and gaudily coloured riot of misadventure, peopled by the kind of caricatured low-lifers Gogol might have drawn had he stumbled into a nightclub favoured by Irvine Welsh. Yevgeny Tkachuk plays Viktor, or “Garlic” as he’s known to friends, a hard-drinking tearaway transitioning between a dead marriage and a new love interest, with the strained accommodation logistics that entails. When his long-absent and abusive father reappears, now an invalid with little time left and an apartment ripe for inheritance, Garlic, with full cynical pragmatism, grasps the situation as a solution landed in his lap. The only hitch: to transport Alexey on a road trip to the nearest available nursing home. His gangster-connected father has other ideas, and Alexey must deal with the old man’s messy past – and his own repressed emotions – along the way.

How Viktor… is a breath of fresh air on several levels. Its brilliant set design – best described as muted psychedelia as domestic kitsch – is centre-stage in creating the idiosyncrasy of its heightened twist on kitchen-sink reality. The film could almost be called anti-Tarkovskian in its visual irreverence, and that’s no bad thing given the near-tired ubiquity of the sombre poetic in Russian film. What’s more, that common eastern European theme of absent fathers has scarcely been better set off than in this chaotic world of homes as aesthetic parody, noisily tweaked out of joint. (Estonian comedy Minu näoga onu [The Man Who Looks Like Me] by Katrin and Andres Maimik in the same section also turns on the return of a less-than-welcome, dying dad, but with a more uneven and less deftly caustic hand). From what we learn of Alexey’s past, Garlic in his abrasive attitude and anchorless trouble-making is in some ways a chip off the old block, and beyond its breezily snappy comedy the film has much to say on nurture and neglect. There is genuine emotional force in this portrayal of a son who despite everything is moved by inescapable recognition, and a father driven to eternally disappoint (played by the wryly expressive star of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s 2014 Leviafan [Leviathan] Alexey Serebryakov, who can impart depth through a mere look). All this is conveyed in the unsentimental terrain of the unsaid, in a film too honest about life’s hapless vulgarity to pander to fine phrases.

Arrhythmia

Aritmiya (Arrhythmia)

Aritmiya (Arrhythmia), from Koktebel (Roads to Koktebel) director Boris Khlebnikov, which premiered in the main competition, was another strong Russian film about strained family and societal dysfunction. A more straightforward offering than How Viktor…, it was nevertheless universally well-received for its everyday relatability, capturing with multi-faceted characterisation the non-dramatic manner in which many relationships founder, and offering a sharp critique of capitalism’s corrosion of community survival systems. Oleg (Alexander Yatsenko, deservedly awarded Best Actor for his performance) is a twenty-something paramedic who likes to unwind drinking with colleagues after a hard shift. Not too emotionally expressive, he’s grown distant in his marriage with Katya (Irina Gorbacheva), a doctor in the hospital’s emergency department. When she announces she wants a divorce, he’s shaken from his complacency. Meanwhile, a morally bankrupt new manager at work who is driven by targets rather than saving patients places Oleg’s conscience in the firing line, in a high-stress profession in which human life can be lost in a single tough decision.

New Blooms: Georgia and Azerbaijan

Nar baği (Pomegranate Orchard)

Nar baği (Pomegranate Orchard)

While cinema of the moment Georgia was on the lips of everyone, Azerbaijan was also a talking point for anyone alert for the region’s next national creative boom, as it is tipped to soon follow its neighbour’s suit with a wave of productivity and talent. Foregrounded by its opening slot, director Ilgar Najaf’s Nar baği (Pomegranate Orchard) was another strong East of the West contender. Inspired by The Cherry Orchard, this pensive, moodily evocative update of the Chekhov staple turns it into a reflection on the disruption to the fabric of life in the former Soviet Union wrought by the scramble for capitalism’s new money, as well as another moving take on the returned father trope. In rural Azerbaijan, ageing Shamil (Gurban Ismayilov) worries about the future of the farm he has lovingly tended for years, which is coveted for takeover by his neighbours due to its prime produce. The peaceful life he shares there with his daughter-in-law (Ilahe Hasanova) and her child is further unsettled by the unexpected appearance one rainy night of his son Gabil (Semimi Farhad), who abandoned them twelve years ago in the wake of a family tragedy and has not been in touch since. He claims to have built a successful life doing business in Moscow, but all is not as it seems. The well-worn bones of this plot are granted fresh breath by quietly arresting visual touches (from the abstracted crimson of pomegranate splashed on a wall, to a tree growing from the rusted carcass of a disused car), and its unassuming emotional dance pays off with a surprising twist that makes even more damning the film’s critique of fractured identity in modern times.

Georgia’s flourishing film industry was represented by a very strong presence across Karlovy Vary’s programs. Chemi Bednieri Ojakhi (My Happy Family), the latest from Grzeli nateli dgeebi (In Bloom) directing duo Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, showed in the Horizons section. It’s a masterful comedy-drama of wry, absurdist farce that reflects on a staunchly traditional society faced with a new individualism through its portrayal of a middle-aged literature teacher who, fed up with never getting a second’s peace for her own thoughts, confounds all around her with her decision to divorce and move out of the chaotic Tbilisi apartment she shares with extended family. Also showing out of competition was Rati Oneli’s stunningly shot Mzis qalaqi (City of the Sun), a quietly majestic and contemplative documentary in which every frame is an evocative refrain imparting the ravages of time and history, and the debris of past dreams. Perched on mountainous landscape, the Georgian city of Chiatura was once a centre of manganese mining, but now lies in post-Soviet decline, abandoned by a large part of its population. The film is as much an atmospheric portrait of architecture in decay as it is of the town’s citizens, as several of them – a music teacher, a miner and a stage actor – are observed moving through the space as they go about their days.

Khibula

Khibula

Georgian director George Ovashvili’s Khibula had its world premiere in the main competition, and is a solid addition to the growing number of Georgian arthouse successes processing the stories of the painful post-independence, conflict-ridden ‘90s. Ovashvili won the festival’s Crystal Globe in 2014 for his gorgeously spare Simindis kundzuli (Corn Island), and Khibula is the much-anticipated final instalment in his trilogy on that era. The film, which draws stately cinematography from its alpine setting, portrays the final days on the run of Georgia’s first democratically elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. His death in 1993 in a mountain village after being ousted in a coup is shrouded in mystery to this day; whether it was suicide or murder has never been conclusively determined. The director presents the controversial figure uncritically as a martyr of sorts in a pared down mood piece sparse on specific detail that feels less a biography of factual record than a fatalistic fable. However, the film is too introspective and downbeat to feel like hagiography, and its approach – tacitly acknowledging the limits of historical knowledge and accuracy as it leans toward archetypes of power that repeat through the ages – feels like a wise choice. We’re aware that this could just as well be any leader face to face with the ebb of his influence and futility of his ideals. As with much Georgian cinema, activity is punctuated with songs, music being not just decorative but intrinsically entwined with the fabric of life. Night closes in like an unpunished assassin, according to lyrics sung at one point, and it could well be said that Khibula is an existential portrait of mortality – the end inevitably in wait for everyone.

Dede

Dede

While Khibula is an impressive rumination on the downfall of power, it is nevertheless a self-serious and staid tale of great men that feature women only as wide-eyed serving girls, incidental sexual partners or elderly haranguing villagers. Its traditional underpinnings in regard to gender politics set in even greater relief the boldness of voice of new directing talent Mariam Khatchvani. Her feature debut Dede was the other real stand-out of the East of the West section and was recognised with a Special Jury Award, continuing a great run for Georgia in the section, which was won last year by Rusudan Glurjidze’s work of haunting poetry Skhvisi sakhli (House of Others). Dede was shot in the Svaneti region of northwest Georgia, where Khatchvani was born (her village community Ushguli is the highest situated in Europe). The visual grandeur of the unforgiving mountains abounds, but while this may be par for the course for many prestige pictures purporting to capture traditional life, there is a distinctly more renegade pulse to be felt here that sets it apart from such cinema. Khatchvani was inspired by experiences of the women in her family that she was told of by her grandmother, and the project’s personal nature surely drives the sense of indignant urgency that is the film’s beating heart.

Dina (Natia Vibliani) is dead-set on marrying for love rather than adhering to the strict clan system rules that bind her options. When she rejects an intended husband, bloodshed erupts. The film was made in the Svan language in an endeavour to preserve it, with a cast almost entirely made up of non-professionals (aside from 13 Tzameti local star George Babluani, convincingly magnetic as the love interest worth risking it all for). Strange ellipses and episodic twists across years give the film an unexpected and curious flavour. These add much to its appeal, and impart a sense that female independence is not one end-victory but must be fought for over and over in a single lifetime, even if this structure arose out of accidental necessity rather than design. Two of the male leads, including Khatchvani’s husband (cinema being very much a family affair in Georgia) landed in jail for six months due to an argument with a police officer, and significant script alterations were needed to restart the shoot. In one charming scene that nods to Georgia’s rich cinematic lineage, villagers gather to watch a comedy classic, Eldar Shengelaia’s 1983 absurdist dig at Soviet bureaucracy Tsisperi mtebi anu daujerebeli ambavi (Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story), which sees a writer go to exasperating lengths to get his manuscript read by publishing house influencers, who fob him off at every turn. Having overcome the myriad obstacles of a difficult shoot and the unpredictable whims of officialdom to succeed with Dede, there’s little chance Khatchvani’s next script (which she plans to base on her actors’ arrest and trial) will go ignored.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
30 June – 8 July 2017
Festival website: http://www.kviff.com/en/homepage