Surprisingly Good Intruders and the End of a Comedy Dream

The 2015 feature production confirms that Slovak cinema is becoming more genre-diversified without getting diverted along the road of following short-term trends. In it we can find a fairy tale, a comedy, a nostalgic retro-story, genre hybrids inspired by popular culture, and also auteur works innovating well-known models of socially-oriented works in which the impulses of the first domestic social films move in new, frequently unexpected directions. Thus, in essence, we can find all the trends that have been intentionally supported, largely after the Slovak Audiovisual Fund was established.

However, diversity does not mean that works
are no longer divided between those which
are focused more towards presentation at international festivals and those which are directed towards a broader audience, not just the local art house audience. Nevertheless, the differences are not so distinct as they used to be in recent years and films following global trends in art cinematography with regard to the cast or genre inspirations are also noticeably directed towards the domestic audience.

The distribution year 2015 commenced quite conventionally, in the line of films from the previous year dealing with the past. The Hostage (Rukojemník) is the third of the nostalgic films by director Juraj Nvota built on an a priori rejection of the normalisation processes in Czechoslovak society. It is not a film signalling a cinematographic trend, rather a film confirming a certain trend in the auteur work of Nvota himself – his theatre and television works differ markedly from his cinema cycle in terms of genre and theme, even though some stylistic and ethical elements remain similar (the penchant for mitigating conflicts, the appeal to maintain the family hearth even despite a temporary disruption of the harmonic order, etc.). The balancing between realism, the decorative (n)ostalgia of the late 1960s and the childish plot- lines (the episode with the fox), however, does not seem convincing in the film and The Hostage remains a somewhat mediocre example of its genre.

Even though it might sound like a cliché, in respect of the films made in 2015, there are three films which continue to stabilise the minimalist, socially sensitivised film or, in other words,
the “social drama”, which appear to be more valuable. While, in 2014, there was a short break and the genre was present only in the form of stories in Children (Deti) and Twenty (Slovensko 2.0), the subsequent year brought two feature débuts from directors of documentaries and one attempt to merge the elements of social drama made the Slovak way with a thriller, romance and film noir. In particular, The Cleaner (Čistič) and Eva Nová (Eva Nová) proved that the ongoing trend of “festival” films is capable of surprising and also developing new ways of appealing to domestic audiences. Thus, The Cleaner involves genres that are more attractive to audiences and Eva Nová entices audiences to view the still popular film star in an unexpected role. However, neither of these films attempts to make concessions to the taste of the masses; The Cleaner even radically frustrates the viewer’s expectations. At the same time, both titles try to remediate the stable images of Slovak film. The dismal, film-noir-style images of (post)apocalyptic Bratislava under constant renovation in The Cleaner are miles away from the housing estate teenage hits and lifestyle films from the beginning of the millennium. The way the camera takes Emília Vášáryová in Eva Nová in combination with the unbecoming styling create a totally different spectacle of an ageing face than we have been accustomed to with Vášáryová. Of the three films made last year, Ivan Ostrochovský’s début Koza (Koza) most obviously follows in the well-established trail of the Slovak festival film. However, even this film sneakily betrays some of the expectations, for instance, instead of the “glocal” magic of economically devastated Eastern Europe, it provides a homogeneous image of alienated countries on the social periphery irrespective of whether we are in the East or the West. It also adumbrates the transformation of the typical protagonist of Slovak films: even though it is the image of a Roma oppressed by life which has been exploited so many times previously, Koza fights for his place under the sun, but at the same time he remains humble and upright (by the end of the film he even manages to overcome the opportunist nature of his fellow-traveller and manager with these traits).

The protagonists of all the three above
films take their fate into their own hands; the “cleaner” Tomáš and the broken actress Eva Nová don’t even need a “manager” from the majority society to do so. In this way, they refer back to the débuts of Mira Fornay and Zuzana Liová (Liová is also one of the dramaturges of Eva Nová); hence, in a way, also to the roots
of Slovak “social” drama. However, both films also bring to it unexpected elements of self- reflection of film or reflection of the domestic film tradition. The Cleaner follows up on Krištúfek’s film Visible World (Viditeľný svet) and, through the character of a recluse who wins love from being hidden under the bed of the chosen woman, it also reflects on the theme of audience voyeurism. In turn, Eva Nová brings a self-reflective vision of cinematography in
its historical perspective by means of archive pictures from the filmography of Emília Vášáryová.

In respect of the theme, Eva Nová is probably the greatest surprise. It does not relate to current tendencies in Slovak cinema films but, surprisingly, to themes found in the television films of the new millennium: this is where we find a certain prototype of a mother who betrayed her own child. Just like the mothers in Párnický’s The Cage (Klietka) or Krištúfek’s Long Short Night (Dlhá krátka noc) so Eva Nová is also, in a certain sense, the victim of her own emancipation and, at the same time, of the political regime demanding compromises. However, the novelty of Eva Nová resides not solely in the minimalist narration but also in the fact that she does not remain dependent on her children, bound to them by fatal ties – she simply remains herself. And also adamantly determined to be reconciled with her son.

All three films build on a specific type of protagonist whose resilience and determination defy the absurdity of the projects in which they invest their energy. Just as in most Slovak social dramas, the projects largely entail
their idiosyncratic ideas of renewing family
ties or building partner relations. While for Koza, who tries to create the conditions for the new member of the family about to arrive, the project is a series of boxing matches in which he is predestined to fail due to his diminishing physical condition, the other two films are based – each in its own way – on the character of an undesired intruder. The family can start to be rebuilt (Eva Nová) or the partnership come into existence (The Cleaner) only at the moment when the character literally becomes an intruder in the lives of others.

In this sense, the collection of feature films premièred in 2015 is aptly complemented by another film about a stubbornly resilient heroine faced with the seemingly absurd project of rescuing her enchanted brothers – the fairy tale by Czech director Alice Nellis Seven Ravens (Sedem zhavranelých bratov). It signifies the gradual extension of the Slovak share in the fairy tale genre, which he director of the Slovak Audiovisual Fund, Martin Šmatlák, shortly before the Fund was established, designated as one of those with a tradition that Slovak cinema could build on. The fairy tale by Alice Nellis was accorded a feminist context by the media solely because the film focuses on an active, resilient heroine and because of the casting, since the role of the future princess was given to an actress not conforming to the stereotypical ideas of beauty. However, compared with Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tri oriešky pre Popolušku, 1973), it transpires that Seven Ravens does not outface any older attempts to subvert gender roles in fairy tales, and it even mishandles the pace, the credibility of acting or the (il)logicality of the actions of the individual characters (the queen and her younger son) which do not fit into the logic of the film, in the attempt to combine the fairy tale magic with psychological realism. In a certain way, the next co-production project, Wilson City (Wilsonov) by Tomáš Mašín also exists on the cusp of being a fairy tale. It is a peculiar genre hybrid, combining elements of comics, hardboiled detective stories, political farce, horror, fantasy and comedy, where real events from the end of World War I come into the context of a retro-dystopia about the Americanisation of old Bratislava. Its visually attractive image interspersed with references to these genres, in combination with the disunited degree of geopolitical irony, engenders mistrust in the intentions of the film, and leaves many reviewers and spectators in doubt as to which of the references to historical life and events were meant as a post-modern joke and which are a consequence of inconsistency or latent Czech colonialism. In combination with the simplistic humour of the film, the whole outcome is decidedly awkward.

The distribution year 2015 was concluded
in feature films by Viktor Csudai’s comedy.
On the one hand, Vojtech (Vojtech) is based
on the topical discourse in which comedy is presented as a genre in great demand in the domestic environment, on the other hand, the film continues in the line of semi-professional expression also represented by Csudai’s début Big Respect (Veľký rešpekt, 2008). Vojtech does not have the political satire ambitions that Wilson City has and The Candidate (Kandidát) or Good Man (Dobrý človek) had, but rather it draws on the character humour of social types – whereby, just like extremely superficial television formats, it recycles unrealistic stereotypes but also mocks the representatives of those social groups which essentially make up the target audience. The film lacks pace, lacks the gift to point up the individual situations, it lacks the harmonisation and consistent symbolism of the costumes, stage design and props. It also lacks the ability to work with genre transitions. The acting performance hovers between various genres and the melodramatic happy ending is even mentoring, reminiscent of the dark times of the “all explanatory” Slovak screenwriting.

It appears that, unlike the social drama which has perfectly achieved a second wind, the long- expected reinvigoration of Slovak comedy still remains a bizarrely tenacious wish. Even though optimists might say that it diversifies the equally tenacious mediocrity of the representatives of other genre types, the almost annual distribution of semi-finished comedy products, which attempt to satisfy the alleged demand, last year again tainted the overall image
of Slovak film in a rather demotivating and destructive manner.

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

Jana Dudková
The Cleaner (Čistič), PHOTO: Bontonfilm