Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Lions of Czech Cinema: 3 Seasons in Hell

Ivan Heinz is the anti-Zhivago, a terrible poet who naively welcomes the Communist takeover of post-war Czechoslovakia. He soon learns the harsh truth about the Marxist regime. His poetry also dramatically improves over the course of three tumultuous years in Tomás Masín’s 3 Seasons in Hell (trailer here), which screens tomorrow night in D.C. as part of the Avalon Theatre’s Lions of Czech Cinema film series.

Young Heinz has imbibed way too much dada. He harbors idealistic notions of the artist as an absurdist troublemaker that wins him few friends. His avowed Communism also strains his relationship with his painfully middle class father. Heinz is determined to suffer for his art, like his hero Rimbaud. Unfortunately, he will get his chance following the Communist coup.

At first, Heinz is surprised the masses are not celebrating the dawn of socialism on the streets of Prague. Of course, he is even more shocked to learn the new regime has little use for a parasitic poet of bourgeoisie lineage with a record of anti-social behavior. His notoriously hedonistic lover Jana has scarcely any better standing. Eventually, they come to the realization the worker’s paradise is no place for their unborn child to live. Naturally though, his plans for emigration involve a dangerously dodgy criminal scheme.

Loosely based on the memoirs of Czech writer Egon Bondy, 3 Seasons hardly idealizes Heinz. Frankly, he is rather a petulant pill much of the time, but that never excuses any of the degradations he suffers and witnesses. Likewise, Jana would be quite a problematic figure as well, but together they seem the perfect pair, who deserve (and want) each other. Yet, should viewers ever doubt the film’s sympathies, the exquisite dignity and integrity of Heinz, Sr. serves a pointed corrective to the cruel madness unfolding around him.

Indeed, Martin Huba (recognizable to some from Jan Hrebejk’s excellent Kawasaki’s Rose) supplies the film’s heart and soul as Heinz père, achingly sincere, while keeping his character solidly grounded. In contrast, Krystof Hádek gets to act out all over the place, but he still finds something deeply human in the junior Heinz. In fact, we watch him mature rather dramatically and credibly, under the starkest of circumstances.

Like the recently released Protektor, 3 Seasons is truly an artfully rendered film, filled with striking images and a dynamic visual sensibility, with great credit due to cinematographer Karl Oskarsson. The unexpectedly jaunty score composed by Filip Jelínek is also oddly effective, somehow never letting the mood get too maudlin, regardless of the abject desperation.

In truth, Masín takes a surprising number of risks throughout the film, but they payoff quite handsomely altogether, resulting in a boldly distinctive historical morality play. Distributed internationally by Yellow Affair, 3 Seasons is highly recommended for Beltway denizens tomorrow night (8/10) at the Avalon and hopefully still has many more screening ahead of it around the country.