Monday, July 17, 2017

Czech That Film ‘17: The Noonday Witch

This is no ordinary hag. The supernatural predator immortalized in Czech nursery rhyme and Dvorak’s symphonic suite always strikes at high noon. She may or may not be stalking the daughter of a recently bereaved widow or possibly her guilt has metastasized into something toxic in Jiri Sadek’s The Noonday Witch (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Czech That Film in Chicago.

Eliska has just moved back to her husband provincial hometown with her daughter Anetka, but without her husband. That is because he is buried there. Evidently, he died in a misadventure that was most likely suicide, but she has yet to tell Anetka. Unfortunately, given the nature of his demise, she stands to receive no insurance benefits. This puts Eliska under tremendous stress that compounds whenever Anetka asks about her absent father. To make matters worse, the region is suffering from a historic draught. The last time water tables were this dry, bad things happened.

It seems they happened to Mayor Mraz’s desiccated-looking wife. Eventually, Eliska learns Madame Mrazova was committed for killing her son. Psychologically, she is unable to bear the guilt, so she now blames the Noonday Witch—or so the Mayor assumes. Ms. Mrazova has been agitated lately, because she senses the witch now has her eyes on Anetka. At first, Eliska does not want to hear her crazy talk, but she eventually sees alarming signs she might be right—or perhaps the single mother is creating them herself, acting out of guilt, stress, and the power of suggestion.

Noonday will inevitably be compared to the over-hyped Babadook, but it is the superior film by a good measure. Sadek and cinematographer Alexander Surkala give the film a distinctive look that is both sun-drenched and eerie. The film has a folkloric vibe, yet it still feels contemporary. Most critically, Sadek handles the evil entity, such as it might be, with dexterous subtlety.

As Eliska, Anna Geislerova mentally cracks up quite spectacularly. Whether there is anything uncanny or not afoot, her nervous breakdown is totally convincing. Veteran Czech thesp Daniela Kolarova is even creepier as Mrazova, while Zdenek Mucha grounds the film as the decent, remorseful Mayor Mraz.

The sun has never been scarier than it is in Noonday, because it dispels the shadows we might hide in. Arguably, it is ambiguous to a fault, but there is no denying the claustrophobic tension Sadek builds. Highly recommended, The Noonday Witch screens this Friday (7/21) and the following Wednesday (7/26) in Chicago, at the Siskel Film Center, as part of the 2017 edition of Czech That Film.