Thursday, February 03, 2011

Frantisek Vlacil at FSLC: Shadows of a Hot Summer

The mere fact that an accomplished but largely nonpolitical artist like filmmaker Franstišek Vláčil would require “rehabilitation” is fundamentally troubling. However, Vláčil was able to work his way back into the then Czechoslovakian state film industry, starting with his well received documentaries and children’s’ films (like the excellent Sirius). Given the realities of so-called “Normalization” under the Husák regime, the overtly Catholic, anti-Communist Ukrainian nationalist guerillas made convenient villains, at least on the surface level of Vláčil’s 1977 feature Shadows of a Hot Summer, which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Fantastic World of Franstišek Vláčil retrospective now underway.

It is the summer of 1947, roughly six to eight months before the Communist coup. Though undeniably from peasant stock, Baram approaches kulak status. His isolated farm has always provided for his family well enough, but it unfortunately makes a perfect hiding place for the Ukrainian Bender Gang. With his wife and children held hostage, Baram must kidnap the village doctor to tend to their wounded leader. Definitely the strong taciturn type, Baram reluctantly acquiesces to their many demands to protect his family, but his young son’s unspoken rebukes are unmistakable.

Written by Jiri Krizan, a dissident who would eventually become a leading advisor to Vaclav Havel, Summer is largely thought to be anti-anti-Communist in name only, with the marauding Ukrainians serving as proxies for the Soviet Army of 1968. Yet, despite the resonance of their invasion of home and hearth, the film is strangely emotionally distant. In a way, the eerie soundtrack by longtime Vláčil collaborator Zdeněk Liška works too well, creating an unsettling vibe that emphasizes the film’s cold, brutal exterior, while keeping its quiet protagonist at arm’s length.

Though it might be difficult to draw a bead on Juraj Kukkura’s Baram, at least he has an appropriately manly presence. Frankly, Gustáv Valach is most successful at creating a fully dimensional flesh and blood character as the fundamentally decent but tired provincial doctor. As for the Benders, they are not extravagant enough to be caricatures, nor fleshed out enough to be real.

Summer is fascinating film for what it represents, both for Vláčil’s career and Czech cinema during the post-Prague Spring era. However, it needs to be appreciated within that larger context. Currently not available on DVD in America, it screens tomorrow (2/4) and next Wednesday (2/9) as the FSLC’s Vláčil retrospective continues at the Walter Reade Theater.