The 38th Film Festival in the picturesque Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary has just come to its conclusion, with three major awards going to Italian-Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek (director of Hammam) and his latest film Facing Window. Sylvie Testud has earned a well-deserved best actress award (no less than three of her films were shown at the festival) in Alain Corneau's elegant comic psychodrama Fear and Trembling, based on an autobiographical novel by the Belgian novelist Amelie Nothomb.
Testud brings sweetness and controlled derangement to her impersonation of Nothomb as she happily conducts a sado-masochistic mental relationship with her beautiful, female Japanese boss. But the big story of the festival concerned the controversial Czech film Mestecko, a savagely funny and grotesque satire of Czech life set in a small town after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and now rescued from oblivion after bombing in its own country this year.
Steven Gaydos, the London-based international executive editor of Variety, puts the case succinctly. "In the six years I have been directing the Variety Critic's Choice sidebar at Karlovy Vary I have never presented a film that has elicited so much controversy. But it's not surprising that Mestecko has evoked such harsh and negative responses. It's almost Goyaesque in its depiction of the venality of the titular village's denizens, who obviously stand for the Czech Republic today."
Gaydos found himself in the position of constantly talking to TV crews outside the Thermal Hotel, the local interviewers anxious to understand why the outside world liked this ugly film so much. "It gave me great pleasure to point out to the Czechs who were actually accusing us of being bribed, that Fellini's La Dolce Vita was disliked by Italian critics at the time of its release."
Imagine something along the lines of an Ealing Comedy like Whisky Galore (though substituting the sex business for the washed-up cache of whisky) and the TV comedy League of Gentlemen and you'll get some idea of this odd and funny film. Set soon after the momentous events of 1989, when Communism precipitously collapsed in Czechoslovakia, the whole community of Mestecko is caught up with a rush towards grotesque and naive get-rich quick schemes. This frenzy corresponds with a simultaneous sexual revolution, involving old-style Communist mayoral bigwigs being voted down in favour of pornography candidates, strippers being hired for the amusement of the whole town and raffle prizes for nights with hookers being won by senior citizens.
Its director, Jan Kraus, is a popular actor in the Czech Republic. This is his first directorial role. As he told the audiences at the festival, the film was based on his own experiences and on the experiences of people he knows, and he rejects all claims that the picture is overheated and deliberately ugly. The townspeople whose stories he used all like the film. And he's recently received a letter from the Oscar-winning Czech exile Milos Forman observing that Mestecko is the best film from their country he has seen in 20 years. Forman's imprimatur cannot easily be brushed aside by the Czech media ("It's no wonder he likes it so much," says Gaydos. "It resembles the social satires that he and Ivan Passer and Jan Nemec were making before the tanks rolled in.") And the effect on Kraus, as you'd expect, has been overwhelming. Suddenly, having convinced himself that he'd made a stinker, he's waking up to the idea that it's good. When you meet him, he can hardly hide his excitement, as if a death in the family has been cancelled.
Of the other Czech films, a personal favourite was a classic piece of animation called Fimfarum, directed by the youthful Aurel Klimt in tandem with veteran animator Vlasta Pospisilova and apparently aimed at "smart children and smart adults". One wonders how much longer films like this will be made - marvellously distinctive Czech stop-motion animation with puppets, on fairy tale themes - but perhaps the presence of 30-year-old wunderkind Klimt on this production augers well.
As ever in this festival there was a strong Russian presence, with a Special Jury Prize going to Lidia Bobrova's striking portrait of redundant old-age Babusja. Fans of Russian cinema should also look out for a short film by Igor Volosin called Hare Hunting, the story of a boy's visit to the sad and snowy house of his grandparents, which received its world premiere at the festival and was very well received. He's a man to watch: the future of Russian cinema, some say.
Other notable films included Ulrich Seidls daring and innovative documentary, eavesdropping on church confessions, Jesus, Du Weist, which won best documentary. Meanwhile, the Norwegian portrait of three friends, Buddy, will appeal to fans of Lukas Moodysson's Together. It received a rapturous response from a largely young audience and later picked up the main audience prize.
Youngsters always turn out for this festival (backpackers are encouraged to camp nearby, and you can always tell them in the cinema from their delightful student odour). This may explain why it has the reputation of being, if not the best, then certainly the most squarely enjoyable film event in Europe. There's something about the good air, the bosky wooded hills, health-giving Bohemian spa waters and elegant architecture. As for the spas themselves: well, there's just a bit too much hosing down and brisk post-Stalinist healthcare ethics still at large for my taste, and I didn't indulge.
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