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Courtesy of In Film Praha
Among the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic is perhaps the most fascinated with the value of cinema as a means to explore the traumas and contradictions of its totalitarian past. If director Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, My Sweet Little Village) is the sardonic elder statesman of such explorations, and Jan Svěrák (Kolya, Dark Blue World) the contemporary sentimentalist, then Jan Hřebejk is the slippery investigator. An often-confounding purveyor of moral ambiguity, Hřebejk works within conventional melodramatic tropes, but his wandering eye denies the viewer facile judgments or tidy resolutions.
These currents are readily apparent in Hřebejk’s latest film, Kawasaki’s Rose, which will be featured at this year’s Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival. The director has tackled authoritarianism through period Holocaust drama (Divided We Fall), but his interrogation of the Republic’s Communist history has previously been one of oblique evaluation through the lens of contemporary Czech confusion (Up and Down, Beauty in Trouble). Not so with Kawasaki’s Rose, which confronts the inhumanities of Communism more defiantly than the director’s previous works. However, this is not a period film set in the gray depths of the Cold War, but a contemporary tale of aftershocks and jumbled truths.
Pavel (Martin Huba, following a wonderful turn in Menzel’s I Served the King of England) is an esteemed psychiatrist whose dissident activism during the days of Communist rule is about to be honored with a national award. Unfortunately, the film crew that is documenting Pavel’s work includes his erratic, resentful son-in-law, Ludek (Milan Mikulcík), who is convinced the older man’s righteous arrogance conceals a darker truth. In a more conventional drama, the duel of wills between these two men would become the centerpiece of the narrative, and Pavel would gradually be revealed to be the tale’s villain. Hřebejk’s ambitions are more expansive and his methods more elliptical. Ludek never loses his streak of obnoxious volatility, and when his behavior sees him ousted from his family, the film’s focus shifts to his long-suffering wife Lucie (Lenka Vlasáková) and his curious mistress Radka (Petra Hrebícková).
Like Hřebejk’s previous international hit, Beauty in Trouble, Kawasaki’s Rose refuses to pin itself permanently to the viewpoint of a particular character. Nor does it hew to the sort of traditional narrative that this tale of personal angst and still-moldering political conflicts might suggest. Where Beauty slathered the guilty pleasures of a soap opera on its moral and psychological explorations, Rose is more serious-minded, but also more impressionistic in its style. In its second half, the film settles into a mood that is almost fatalistic and meditative, as it suggests that the personal can never be untangled from the political. Rose reveals that Hřebejk remains a filmmaker engrossed with human frailty and with the difficulty in making hardheaded judgments in a complex world.
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St. Louis native Andrew Wyatt is the founder of the film aficionado website Gateway Cinephiles, where he has been an editor and contributor since 2007, authoring reviews, essays, and coverage of the St. Louis International Film Festival; check out his blog for further coverage of this year's SLIFF.