A postcard from Karlovy Vary

We report from the Czech festival.

by Amber Wilkinson

Intimate Lighting is a complex mixture of absurdity and regrets.
Intimate Lighting is a complex mixture of absurdity and regrets. Photo: Courtesy of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Crowds gather in the shadow of Hotel Thermal
Crowds gather in the shadow of Hotel Thermal Photo: Amber Wilkinson
The history of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival may stretch all the way back to 1946 - when it was co-hosted by fellow spa town Mariánské Lázne - but it understands the importance of the fountain of youth, attracting an audience that is predominantly young and enthusiastic. As you arrive in the town, which lies around an hour and a half to the west of Prague, the festival atmosphere is immediately apparent.

Crowds gather in the shadow of the Functionalist/Brutalist Hotel Thermal, its tower dominating the skyline, to hang out by the River Tepla until late at night, sharing gossip and views about the day's films and stars over a beer or, this year, even a vodka-filled coconut - all somewhat more tasty, though doubtless worse for your liver, than the salty, hot thermal waters available at drinking fountains in the town's Colonnade. The Thermal may be the festival hub but venues are scattered across the town - including the Neo-Baroque Municipal Theatre, the intricate interior of which is much more beautiful than its name suggests, and the Husovka theatre, a dark and tightly packed basement, situated at a top of a hill that proves a brutally steep challenge for latecomers.

Orson Welles and Keith Baxter in Chimes At Midnight.
Orson Welles and Keith Baxter in Chimes At Midnight.
Filmgoers form their own steady stream alongside the river through the town, lending the festival an intimate and accessible air. I firmly believe a film can be enhanced by the setting where it is watched and the Municipal Theatre proved the perfect place to catch Orson Welles' Chimes At Midnight. The grandeur, crystal chandelier and murals of the auditorium are ideally suited to this Shakespearean adaptation which centres less on the much-touted character of Falstaff, than on the choice facing Prince Hal between his father's austere but noble outlook and the revelry and friendship offered by the boastful knight. Everything about the film is powered by opposing forces, with Welles maintaining a theatrical air while infusing the action with movement. Even the cast choices - particularly the pitching of himself and his distinctively expansive acting style against the eloquent reserve of John Gielgud as the ageing King - is a triumph of opposites.

There were plenty of homegrown classics at the festival this year, too, including Czech New Wave gem Intimate Lighting - screened from a newly restored print - which presents a series of lightly comedic, slightly wistful vignettes during a weekend reunion of two old school friends. It's 10 years since these musicians have met and as they come together at the house of one of the men ahead of a concert. Ivan Passer gently scratches at the surface of their lives to reveal a complex mixture of absurdity and regrets, mitigating melancholy with mirth. Many of the film's best moments come at the family dining table, with food a recurring theme in Czech cinema, also highlighted by fellow classic The Party And The Guests. Jan Nemec's film has lost little of its potency in the years since it was "banned forever" by Czechoslovak President Antonín Novotný in 1973 - and it's a shame the director, who died at age 79 in March, couldn't have seen the large crowd which filled the Municipal Theatre to view it this week. His film uses food in its early stages to suggest frivolity and companionship at an intimate picnic, later finding sharp contrast in absurdist dishes of what appear to be sausages perched on shells at a banquet where guests can check out any time they like, but they can never leave.

The intricate setting of the Municipal Theatre is perfect for Chimes At Midnight
The intricate setting of the Municipal Theatre is perfect for Chimes At Midnight Photo: Amber Wilkinson
I completed my journey back in time with space sci-fi Ikarie XB 1, appropriately programmed in a 10.30pm slot, so that a glass or two of beer had been supped by most of the audience beforehand. A gloss of alcohol surely makes the slightly kitschy sets more enjoyable and takes some of the edge off the plotting confusion as Jindrich Polák sends his crew toward Alpha Centauri in search of sentient life. Featuring a robot who appears to be a distant cousin of Forbidden Planet's Robby, the film's strength lies in its evocation of what would be, in 1963 - and arguably even now - that most clear and present danger, the threat of nuclear weapons.

You can't help but wonder what a director like Polák would have done if he'd had colour film and modern CGI at his disposal; after all, there there were a clutch of modern directors looking to the past who opted for the uniformity of black and white for their new work. In I, Olga Hepnarová - about the life and crime of the last Czechoslovak woman to be executed - the monochrome choice bolsters the film's austerity, somehow making the character's emotions seem even more glass-like and impenetrable. While Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb's film suffers from an over-reliance on voice-over and dialogue towards its latter stages, its aesthetic and framing remain strong throughout.

Michalina Olszanska in I, Olga Hepnarová
Michalina Olszanska in I, Olga Hepnarová
In sharp contrast comes Finnish film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, in which Juho Kuosmanen uses black and white 16mm film to give his story a fluid and textured grace. The look is almost tactile, highly appropriate for a movie about a boxer whose stock in trade is physical contact, although the focus is on the gently developing love story between Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) and his newly acquired girlfriend Raija (Oona Airola) outside the ring. The understated shooting of the inevitable climatic fight offers a fresh and emotionally rich twist on boxing film expectations and is a gentle reminder of the things that are most important.

Other notable films at the festival included Slovak drama The Teacher. Jan Hrebejk's film, from a screenplay by Petr Jarchovský, is set in the Czechoslovakia of the Eighties, where the "reluctant terror" of Normalisation held sway. Beginning after an event which is not revealed until much deeper in the film, a school has taken the unusual step of calling a parents' meeting to discuss one of its teachers. Mrs Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry, who deservedly took home an acting prize from the festival for her role) appears to be full of sweetness and light but her interest in the occupations of her pupils' parents is unsettling and we soon see her become a force for manipulation, able to conduct a campaign of hidden fear courtesy of her Communist Party standing. The parents' evening has the claustrophobic feel of 12 Angry Men as the parents bicker through their fear. Although firmly anchored in a specific time and place, the film is a sharp allegory for the way in which power corrupts.

Documentaries of note included the immersive and observational Normal Autistic Film and Under The Sun - both of which take a distinctly psychological approach to their subjects. In Normal Autistic Film, Miroslav Janek collaborates with young people on the autistic spectrum to let them talk about their lives and emotions. He particularly celebrates ideas of neurodiversity - these are children who are continually thinking outside the box, even if that can sometimes mean they destroy the box in the process. "To me society is disabled," says one, and you're likely to agree after watching this.

Under The Sun
Under The Sun
Under The Sun, meanwhile, is a study of a nation - North Korea - under constant psychological distress. If the manipulations of The Teacher show how power can be wielded in the microcosm of a school, Vitaly Mansky's film - which was shot under strict script and shooting supervision by Kim Jong-un's regime - throws back the curtain so that we can see the hidden machinations. By letting his camera roll on past the end of each "scene" he shows how not just the emotions of a little girl and her family, but also the detail of their lives have been fabricated for the family. It's a haunting, disturbing film that shows that even what appears to be freedom of expression can be constructed.

Read about the Karlovy Vary non-statutory and gala winners. British cinemagoers will get to sample some of the best of Czech cinema this autumn at London's Made In Prague festival organized by the Czech Centre London. We'll be bringing you details of the line-up when it is announced.

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