Sunday, December 11, 2016

AFI’s EU Showcase ’16: I, Olga Hepnarova

In 1973, a mere five years after the Soviet Invasion, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the hardest hardline Communists. They were grim days for the mental health profession and hardly an era of tolerance in general. Plus, the death penalty was still very much in force. It was the worst possible time and place for young woman like Olga Hepnarová, the last woman executed in the Communist nation. Yet, in many ways she was created by the very system that tormented her. The infamous mass murderer’s story is vividly dramatized in Petr Kazda & Tomás Weinreb’s I, Olga Hepnarová (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2016 EU Film Showcase.

Hepnarová’s sexual orientation was one of the unspoken issues that drove a wedge between her and her family and co-workers. In current parlance, we might also conclude she was to some degree “on the spectrum.” Regardless, we see in psychologically brutal detail how the bullying Hepnarová constantly faced short-circuited the development of her personality. As a result, she makes every painful social interaction even worse. She is not blameless for the dismal state of her life, but her family, particularly her domineering mother bear more responsibility than anyone.

Rather remarkably, Hepnarová has the wherewithal to come out of the closet and pursue a romantic relationship with the attractive Annie Hall­-ish Jitka, but it is inevitably undermined by circumstances and her own self-sabotage. Yet, that is not the immediate catalyst for her deadly vehicular assault, which prefigured this year’s Nice “terror truck” incident. Instead, it is just more drips in the prolonged water torture-like pressure that ultimately breaks her.

Polish Michalina Olszaanska (who was a marvel in The Lure) could probably be a waifish fashion model in real life, but she boldly transforms herself into the awkwardly boyish Hepnarová. Her twitchy, halting body language makes her look as uncomfortable in her own skin as she is with her oppressive environment. It is a tour de force performance that dominates and defines the film.

Yes, Kazda & Weinreb invite us to sympathize with a mass murderer who killed eight and wounded another twelve, to an extent—and we do, to an extent. Truly, the term “bullying” is not sufficient to describe the sort of pervasive hostility she endured. Yet, everyone is mired in a morass of utter and abject hopelessness.

The black-and-white cinematography of Adam Sikora (whose credits include Majewski’s incomparable The Mill & the Cross) emphasizes that unyielding drabness rather than scoring noir style points. Frankly, it is enormously impressive how Kazda & Weinreb maintain such stifling claustrophobia and a sense of steadily mounting tragedy. As accomplished as it is, it is hard to imagine anyone buying it on DVD. This is a film people ought to see, but once will be plenty. Recommended for those who can appreciate its uncompromising aesthetic, I, Olga Hepnarová screens this Monday (12/12) and Wednesday (12/14) , as part of the AFI’s annual EU Film Showcase.