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Czech That Film — Czech Cinematography Festival in Chicago, Gene Siskel Film Center, June 9 - July 3, 2013

After the inaugural festival of Czech film, featuring new and classic Czech films, toured the United States in 2012, organizers and programmers updated the festival to function not just as advertising for Czech culture, but to also suggest that the films belong to a new period in Czech cinema. This move suggests a developing trend in the cinemas of Eastern Europe. Ever since the success of Romanian films at major European film festivals in the mid-2000s led critics to posit the existence of the "Romanian New Wave," East European film industries have been looking to replicate that international acclaim and the financial success of wide distributions such blanket terms tend to produce. Tat’iana Moskvina-Iatsenko's article "The Conflict of Life and Death in Russian New Wave Cinema (2010/11)" [translated in] offers an example of how to formulate a thematic unity between a selection of Russian films that constitutes a new period in Russian filmmaking. Packaging films under the blanket concepts of "New Cinemas" and "New Waves" helps draw attention to the cinemas of smaller nations. But it should not be confused as a definition of uniformed themes or stylistic principles, unless, of course, there are explicit statements to the contrary that define the stylistic principles of a movement, something along the lines of the Danish "Dogma 95" movement.

How can venues and festivals stimulate audiences to consider the themes and aesthetics of national cinema? Double bills on Sunday afternoons at the Siskel encouraged consideration of the stylistic variety in New Czech Cinema. The screening of two films back-to-back offers the opportunity to compare and contrast everything, from the dramaturgy to the actor performances to the visual styles of the films. On Sunday June 9, the Siskel screened Jan Hřebejk's investigative thriller Innocence (Nevinnost, 2011) together with David Ondříček's historical detective film In the Shadow (Ve stínu, 2012). On June 16, the Siskel combined Richard Řeřicha's punk coming-of-age film Don't Stop (2012) with Zdeněk Jiráský's family drama Flower Buds (Poupata, 2011). On June 22, spectators could watch Alice Nellis' romantic comedy Perfect Days (I ženy mají své dny, 2011) with Tomáš Řehorek's satirical buddy comedy Signál (2012). And for the last double bill, the Siskel combined Jiří Vejdělek's sexual comedy Men in Hope (Muži v naději, 2011) with Tomáš Luňák's entrancing animated drama Alois Nabel (2011).

What follows are individual descriptions of each film along with comments on how they incorporate aspects of Czech culture in larger currents of global cinema.


innocence 03

Innocence leaves the spectator guessing the true identity of victim and criminal. The film's plot is driven by the confessions of a teenage girl [Anna Linhartová], who claims her doctor [Ondrej Vetchý] made love to her while helping to rehabilitate her broken leg. The investigation of the crime is assigned, as a favor, to the former husband of the doctor's wife [Hynek Cermák]. When the girl's confessions are proven to be nothing but fantasies, the doctor is revealed to have carried on an affair with his wife's sister [Anna Geislerová]. The film plays on the meaning of the title, as the innocence and guilt of characters is reframed and undermined. Visually, through the use of off-screen space, the film suggests to the spectator to never completely trust what is seen inside the frame of the moving image. In several scenes featuring the main characters, the presence of others is revealed with considerable delay. This strategy reframes how spectators understand what they see on the screen and visually alerts them to the possibility of hidden plotlines and motives.

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David Ondříček's In the Shadow features the detective Hakl [Ivan Trojan] as he works to solve a series of robberies in 1950s Prague. He uncovers a link between the crimes and a Communist plot to devalue the Czech currency. As a representation of a problematic historical period, the film deals with the scapegoating of Czechoslovakia's Jewish community by the Communist Party as an excuse for the currency manipulation. While the director was interested in this dark history of Czechoslovak Communism, he sought inspiration for his script and visual style in more universal? detective stories, wanting to create a dark atmosphere that would correspond to the intrigues of his script. At its core, In the Shadow is a detective suspense-thriller that takes many of its narrative cues, mise-en-scène strategies, and expressionistic lighting from the film-noir tradition, reinventing these methods in the context of Communist Czechoslovakia. As a treat for film aficionados, the film's visual style is laden with references to Alfred Hitchcock’s and David Fincher’s noir masterpieces..

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Set during wintertime in a dreary industrial town, Flower Buds presents the story of a family straining under existential pressures. As they search for relief from the hardships of everyday life, more and more strain bears down on the family members. The father, Jarda [Vladimír Javorský], gambles away the family's savings. His plan to kill himself leads to another man's death. Kamila [Malgorzata Pikus], the mother, has to deal with her husband's lies as she struggles to keep her family together. Their daughter Agáta [Marika Soposká] has to cope with the news that she is pregnant. Her brother, Honza [Miroslav Pánek], searches for love in a relationship with an exotic dancer. The narrative of Flower Buds unfolds through fragmentary scenes that rotate the film's perspective between the family members. Shots of trains rolling through the industrial landscape bridge these disparate scenes, eliciting a sense of gloom and circuitous movement rather than any sense of progress.

dont stop 01

Don't Stop documents the rise of punk music in Czechoslovakia during the bleary 1980s. Richard Řeřicha's film tells the story of young men who form a punk band to resist the oppressive atmosphere of late-era Communism. Set in Prague in 1983, it captures the experience of teenage angst directed against the status quo of the paternalistic, authoritarian state. Yet, the film ultimately strikes a dour note on teenage rebellion. Through the narrative frame of recalling one's youth, Miki [Patrick Dergel] nostalgically recollects how punk music offered friendship and rebellion, until his band splintered because of drug abuse and personal interests. Unlike his band mates who suffer either a wretched or boring fate, Miki conformed, passed his college exams, and became an architect. He's a settled adult who pines for his glory days.

perfect days 04

In Perfect Days successful hairdresser and television personality Erika [Ivana Chýlková] decides to have a child before her biological clock runs out. She has spent her life building up her business and waiting for the right man. In the opening scene, Erika offers herself to a man, who informs her that she has waited too long. In typical romantic comedy fashion, she struggles to conceive through artificial insemination, has to listen to the constant criticism of her elderly mother, and gets involved in a relationship with the son of her best friend. When her mother dies, Erika's secrets are revealed, leading her to do everything on her own. Cue the time-lapse montage sequence that shows Erika mastering motherhood and her independence. The film's glossy production rivals the standards of Hollywood rom-coms, while managing to avoid the stereotypes of that genre.

signal 03

In Signál, two young men, cousins Filos [Vojtech Dyk] and Kaja [Krystof Hádek], scam the inhabitants of a rural town when they pretend to represent a cell-phone company looking to install a cell tower in their region. Pretentious and flamboyant, Filos, a classically trained singer, bullies his cousin, a physics grad student, into the scheme. Their arrival stirs the avarice of the locals. Hoping to be chosen and receive royalty checks, the locals vie to entice the would-be technicians to select their property. When the townspeople realize they've been scammed they lock up the young men and contemplate executing them. In the end, the cousins manage to avoid corporal punishment and flee the town, but not before Kaja has gained some self-confidence and Filos has lost his. The film ridicules the greed of its characters and the idiosyncrasies of the rural town. It follows the tradition of using conmen and swindlers to expose the flaws and faults of humanity. Shot in digital video, Signál has a coolness that complements its narrative.

men in hope 01

In Men in Hope, the meek and dutiful Ondrej [Jirí Machácek] ventures outside the bounds of his marriage and begins an affair with the ravishing Šarlota [Vica Kerekes]. Ondrej is encouraged in his extramarital tryst by his father-in-law, Rudolf [Bolek Polívka], who has carried on affairs for as long as he's been married. The affair rejuvenates and instills confidence in Ondrej. Although complications ensue when Šarlota moves in next door with Rudolf, in the end, marital bliss prevails. Despite its happily-ever-after finale, Men in Hope is a celebration of the male libido. The camera plays to the heterosexual male pleasure of looking, as the female leads have the youth and body of pin-up models. Rudolf's older wife seems to pay for her age and loss of vivaciousness, when she is abruptly run over by a truck. Color clichés are relied on to mark the redheaded Šarlota, the sultry enchantress always dressed in red, while the Ondrej's wife, who is blonde and often wears white or light pastels, is marked as pure, even though she has apparently cheated on Ondrej. By also revealing that Rudolf's wife carried on an affair for fifteen years with a blind masseuse, the film attempts to strike a balance in the infidelities, as if to say, both sexes stray but in the end return to their true loves. Yet, from the voyeuristic images of the female body it's clear to which sex belongs the film's perspective.

alois nebel 01

The animated drama Alois Nabel inhabits a completely different universe. The story of the middle-aged railroad worker Alois progresses at a slow, methodical pace. As the order of train schedules and national organization that had long comforted him begins to unravel in 1989, the lonely railroad man begins to suffer from confusion and melancholia. He is haunted by visions of a German woman who suffered abuse at the hands of a local strongman near the end of World War II, when Germans were forced out of today's northern Czech Republic. While a narrative of revenge structures the film's plot, the real focus is on Alois. He loses his position when he suffers a breakdown and journeys to Prague to seek help from the railroad company. His loneliness is assuaged when he begins a tender relationship with a bathroom attendant. Although the narrative is mysterious and intriguing, the real power of the film lies in its rotoscope animation. The expressive use of lighting and ink-wash blacks and grays further lends the film a dramatic dimension.

A couple of these films were screned in Chicago before. Combining these with the ones that were having their premiers under the blanket term "New Czech Cinema" seemed designed to rouse interest in other Czech films. If this sample of films entertained and engaged audiences, they might seek out other Czech titles while critics, journalists, and cinephiles just might start asking "Have you seen the new Czech film?" As A. O. Scott reported in his New York Times article that introduced the term "Romanian New Wave" to the States, such a question begain to circulate at Cannes in 2008, only about Romanian films. Although the programming of Czech That Film did not suggest a uniform movement, what the festival managed to do by featuring new and previously shown films with their mix of styles and genres is to suggest how new Czech films incorporate and transform currents of global cinema.

Zdenko Mandušić
Author: Zdenko MandušićCountry: US
Zdenko Mandušić is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. His areas of study are Russian/Soviet and Yugoslav cinema, film theory, and Russian and Southeast European Literature. He plans to write a dissertation based around the question of how the desire for innovation has inspired technological developments.

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