Stories Devoid of Love or Shame

To watch contemporary feature films produced with majority Slovak participation no longer entails a direct invitation to martyrdom or self-torture. On the contrary, today the community of people interested in Slovak film is tempted to view in comfort a series of stories delimited, let us say, by the year of “release” in cinemas which more or less convincingly testify to the condition of audiovision, society and culture in the country.

The story of the first months of 2013 turned out to be a story of festival successes of films known as “social dramas” by people in the film industry. Together with the screening of Fine, Thanks (Ďakujem, dobre) by Mátyás Prikler and My Dog Killer (Môj pes Killer) by Mira Fornay at the Rotterdam IFF, the question again arose as to whether it is good for the local cinema to focus only on “festival” films. They do win important awards but they are not capable of attracting enough paying (local) audiences to the cinema. Therefore, many film critics awaited the second half of the year with tension – this was when the first two films supported from the Minimal Programme of the Slovak Audiovisual Fund (AVF) – low-budget “genre” films aimed at less “elitist” audiences – were released in cinemas.

In 2013, altogether eight full-length feature films with majority Slovak participation were released in cinemas. Only five of these form part of this story.

For instance, Intrigues (Intrigy) is a costume film which bucks all current trends. With its rigorous mise-en-scène and conventional adaptation of literature, it’s distantly reminiscent of the old tradition of Monday plays on Slovak Television – however, they never had any ambition towards cinema release and Intrigues did not make the most of this potential. And, unlike this television format, Intrigues does not even have the potential of critical allusion to the present day. Hence, the question arises of what audiences the filmmakers sought to address through the satirical picture of social elites of the 18th, 19th or beginning of 20th centuries? When we learn that the film consists of three works created as part of post-graduate studies at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, we get an answer to this question, at least in part. The film really looks like an exercise with unsteady directing, occasional clumsy acting performances and with almost no relation between the dialogues and current social problems.

Attonitas has a different potential. Just like Intrigues, this low-budget project was made without the financial support of the AVF (the filmmakers only applied for post-production and distribution support, in both cases unsuccessfully). In addition to this relative “independence”, it has one other thing in common with Bebjak’s horror Evil (Zlo, 2012) – a similar sub-genre narrative of the expedition which sets out to shed light on the nature of paranormal activities in the haunted house. If we omit the amateurish dialogues or how the filmmakers spin out the plot in vapid, prolonged shots of the faces of the protagonists wandering around the manor house, the film is not quite a vain attempt to utilise a low-budget and undemanding (in terms of scriptwriting) sub-genre for presentation of the existential fear of the era we are living in. The protagonists of Attonitas are young people who “film” themselves even in everyday life, in petty and compromising situations. The loss of privacy and fear of betrayed love lead to a surprising punch-line which reacts also to the idea of an unlawful state, the gratuitousness of the police or evil, and even the “most innocent” of us are capable of resorting to it.

Corruption of the state apparatus is also the topic of The Candidate (Kandidát), and the final theme of a lonely avenger returns in a different form and attempt to create a different genre (a combination of gangster film and western) in Indian Summer (Babie leto). The development strategy of both films is also similar in that both are connected to current fiction trends. The new film by Gejza Dezorz brings brand new themes, environments and moods to Slovak cinema. Indian Summer hovers between sleazy, even chauvinistic, trash and contemplative narrative which (thanks even to the story linked to murdering) brings it close to the works of the Coen brothers. Moreover, the film brings a quite unexpected view of minorities and it does not fret about political correctness, it is not interested in careless positive exoticism, to such an extent that it combines ideologically incompatible contexts in the post-modern cynicism manner: for instance, the neo-Nazi actor and singer Rasťo Rogel in a story which seemingly promotes friendship between the majority population and problematic nationalities (Roma, Hungarian).

Unlike Indian Summer, Jonaš Karásek’s The Candidate balances on the edge of “cynicism” in a completely different manner. To date, this film has had the most perfect, most varied and most efficient marketing campaign in the history of Slovak cinema – to such an extent that it even overshadowed the originality of the story or its subversive potential in the first reviews (ultimately, The Candidate had very good cinema attendances). The multiple coding turns the film into an allusion to product promotions, its visual and in part sound design also refer to them. Elements of metropolitan soap operas, improvisational dialogue humour and advertising aesthetics are supplemented by themes of hidden resistance against the hypermarket culture (references to the Skrat Theatre, Pohoda Music Festival, etc.). The cynical impression of the film as a marketing product is also countered by the story which recalls conspiracy theories about wiretapping, but also the hypermodern loss of privacy or topical links between the church, advertising and political powers.

Films reacting to the current period through various genre prisms (horror, thriller, revenge film) have their opposites in films dealing with the moral consequences of the drop in the standard of living. In February, directly after being screened at the Rotterdam IFF, Fine, Thanks was released in Slovak cinemas. Unlike Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš, 2012), Miracle (Zázrak) or My Dog Killer, it does not deal with people from the fringes of society. On the contrary, it highlights the moral degradation of the middle class; thus, compared with the above films, it also risks less respect to the topic. Fine, Thanks does not deal with the topic of social segregation. It “only” offers a picture of dysfunctional families where relations are based on economic calculus, or where they have fallen apart due to the loss of a child. The film is built on Mátyás Prikler’s graduation film made in 2009. In his graduation film, the director decided to break with the unwritten rule of the dominance of Slovak as the language which the characters of Slovak films are expected to speak (of course, only if they are not Roma) even before Apricot Island (Marhuľový ostrov, dir. Peter Bebjak, 2011) was released. The stories of three families are combined in the resulting full-length feature film; the strange exoticism of the dual Slovak-Hungarian identity remains present all thetime: on the one hand it slightly alienates and serves to question the fact that Slovak identity as a matter of language and ethnicity is taken for granted, but on the other hand it is also aimed at audiences in Hungary, where the exoticism of the Hungarian ethnicity as a minority within a foreign state gets into a less acceptable, almost trifling form (the Slovak anthem in television broadcasting).

Compared with Prikler’s film, My Dog Killer by Mira Fornay has a more uniform style and dramaturgy; it is more consistent in its acting performances, as well as in the overall visual and acoustic setting of the mood. Just as in Foxes (Líštičky, 2009), Fornay avoids verbal explanations but this time her narrative is built on the tragic principle of imminent fratricide. It is motivated by the ambivalent attempt to get closer to the protagonist’s mother and, at the same time, to blackmail her through the kidnapping of his brother who was the reason for the break-up of his parents’ marriage. In addition to the sibling drama, My Dog Killer also outlines the more burning social background of the story: poverty, the economic decline of the region and the related chilling omnipresent waiting, postponing of solutions and actions. The impossibility of moving ahead, which ultimately leads to racial segregation, is accompanied by the endeavour to belong somewhere (and to be able to fix one’s affiliation in a solid identity) and, in the end, also by the occasional outbreak of homophobic or racially motivated aggression.

Miracle by Juraj Lehotský is the third film in the series of last year’s social tragicomedies, tragedies and dramas. It is neither so ambivalent or even fragmented in terms of its dramaturgy and style as Fine, Thanks, nor so consistent in maintaining the allusive narration as My Dog Killer. Seemingly observational moments alternate with scenes where the characters verbally explain their motivation, feelings and stories, and these expositions in particular are sometimes superfluous, based on the repetition of well-known clichés and corny metaphors. The excellent image narration suffers from the non-inventive use of words and their hidden meanings. This is pertinently illustrated in the ending of the film which should at last clarify what “the miracle” in the title means – it is the miracle of motherly love associated with the cliché idea of the transformation of the main character when she suddenly discovers tenderness at the moment when she sees her newborn – however, in the meantime, she has already given up her child for adoption.

Three very varied films stand out among films depicting stories of people from the periphery and films funded by the Minimal Programme. In addition to Attonitas and Intrigues we should also make mention of Love Me Or Leave Me (Miluj ma alebo odíď) from Mariana Čengel Solčanská. It was made with support from the AVF and it had quite a successful marketing and distribution strategy. However, with its poetics, theme and emphasis on women as authors, it surprisingly returns to the films Blue Heaven (Modré z neba, 1997) and Quartet (Quartétto, 2002). Unlike these two films, Love Me Or Leave Me also includes the rivalry between a mother and daughter who are both interested in the same man. The problems solved in the film and the method of working with emotionally charged situations are reminiscent of popular television series, even though lesser-known faces were cast in the main roles. This film is conservative, even anachronistic; it restores to Slovak cinema the tendency to flee from social problems to isolated places where suppressed family traumas surface in order to make it possible for the family to re-consolidate in the end.

The leitmotif of a rejected woman or woman as a victim returned in several films produced last year. Since The House (Dom, 2011) by Zuzana Liová, where the protagonist takes fate into her own hands, Slovak film returned again to the traditional patriarchal ruts. However, on the other hand, the theme of faded or chained love between spouses, lovers, and love between parents and children or between siblings appeared in all last year’s films. It appears to be the case that, whether the economic crisis, the criminal underworld of the country or the nature of the hypermodern “era” is stressed, Slovak filmmakers continue to be intrigued by the transformation of the emotions and morals of present-day society, indicating that Slovak films remain films in which passion is not trusted, but belief in a productive rectification of society has also been lost.

Jana Dudková

This work was supported by the Research and Development Support Agency on the basis of Contract No. APVV-0797-12.