Ben Nicholson Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Karlovy Vary 2018: Our festival highlights

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”
Radu Jude’s film claimed the top prize at this year’s festival and it’s easy to understand why. It embraces the kind of boldly political stance of classic Polish cinema from the Communist era like a riff on both Wajda and Zanussi. The result is a formally loose, but dizzyingly dense and morally forthright examination of national attitudes and the myopia of nostalgia told through ranging meta-constructs and highfalutin debate. The plot sees a young theatre director, played by Ioana Iacob, trying to stage a provocative public reconstruction of the 1941 capture of Odessa by the Romanian army which preceded the murder of thousands of Jews. Read our review

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire
This unlikely retrospective selection was easily a festival highlight playing in the hip Kino Drahomira amidst a busy jazz evening at the bar. Quite what Czech audiences will have made of one of Alan Clarke’s more unusual outings is difficult to gauge – but there was a lot of laughter. The film is a rock-opera musical about a Cockney cowboy and a Yorkshireman vampire who must take each other on in a high-stakes 17-frame game of snooker. This is generation warfare in Thatcher’s Britain as a supernatural pitting of Jimmy White against Ray Reardon in some dystopian brutalist future. Bravura camerawork, brilliant performances, bonkers idea – and it works a charm.

Burning
Holy smoking greenhouses! Lee Chang-dong’s adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story is a constantly shifting slow-burn (sorry) mystery in the truest sense. A young man, Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-In) begins a tentative relationship with a girl he went to school with, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) only for an enigmatic stranger Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) to suddenly come between them. Gorgeously shot and intricately mounted, possible thematic rabbit-holes for willing audiences to explore include Korea’s financial divide, disintegrating family units, exploitation, self-loathing, toxic masculinity. Riveting stuff. Read our review

Diamantino
What if Cristiano Ronaldo was only so good at football because when he played he didn’t see the pitch and opponents but giant fluffy puppies cavorting in candy-floss pink clouds? This and many other pressing questions are answered in Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s absurdist Portuguese comedy Diamantino. After missing a crucial World Cup penalty, a distraught Diamantino becomes: embroiled in a police investigation into his taxes; an icon for fervent nationalist propaganda; a father to an immigrant boy; patient zero for a newly cloned Portugal team. The result is a unique, genre-splicing riot riffing on everything from modern masculinity to football celebrity and divisive contemporary politics.

Donbass
Formally the complete opposite to Diamantino but sharing in certain qualities and themes, Sergei Loznitsa returns with a surreal portrait of the Ukrainian civil war in the Donbass region. As absurdly amusing as it is grotesque and unsettling, it’s a meandering critique in the way his A Gentle Creature was – but without the central character to guide the audience. This time the structure resembles a collection of skits with a geographical thread running through them. As ever, Loznitsa is unrelenting in his take on the politics of the area, tackling fake news, violence, corruption, and virulent nationalism. Read our Cannes review

Happy as Lazzaro
Alice Rohrwacher goes from strength to strength with Happy as Lazzaro, a beautiful, and beautifully constructed, slice of magical realist fable. The eponymous young man (whose name might sound familiar from the Bible, played by the angelic Adriano Tardiolo) is an innately good soul living in a rural sharecropping community. He’s a beacon of warmth amid the encroaching cold of inequality and exploitation. The film takes on a time-warping metaphysical dimension around the mid-point but remains a graceful, understated hymn with an overwhelming spiritual and humanist denouement. Read our review

Museum
In 1985, an audacious heist was pulled off when the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City was relieved of over 100 priceless Mayan and Aztec artefacts. The theft turned out to be the work of two veterinary students, one of whom is played in Alonzo Ruizpalacios’ Museum by the impish Gael Garcia Bernal. He lends weight to this genuinely entertaining caper that follows a meticulous and tense robbery sequence (carried out in complete silence), with drama, in-fighting and a surprisingly poignant resolution. Along the way, Ruizpalacios and cinematographer Damian Garcia have some fun with trippy visuals which help maintain the effervescent mood.

Profile
Timur Bekmambetov is quite the exponent of ‘screen movies’ having produced 2014’s Unfriended and this year’s Sundance hit Searching. Now he’s behind the camera for a thriller about how young European women are seduced by ISIS over social media. As much as the concept stretches plausibility at times, there’s a clear contemporary energy in the idea and while Profile is undoubtedly silly and stuffed with broad-stroke, stereotypical characters, the central duo and their relationship make for compelling viewing both dramatically and for Shazad Latif’s MVP turn as a charismatic ISIS recruiter. Read our review

Walden
Thirteen shots comprise this structuralist forestry odyssey. Each one slowly pans 360° horizontally, giving a lie of the surrounding land as a ‘narrative’ charts the movement of wood from an Austrian forest to a (very) far off destination. In some shots, the movement across abstracted objects – like tree trunks – creates a strangely amorphous visual effect. In others, the environs are more clear and perfunctory. In each one, director Daniel Zimmerman meticulously choreographs where the camera is and what it’s seeing. From paradise to the production line – and back again; a study in landscape and how we traverse it.

Winter Flies
Olmo Omerzu’s follow-up to the stinging satire of 2015’s Family Film is another tale of children left to their own devices by negligent parents, but this time takes the form of an unsentimental but winning road movie caper, Winter Flies. It’s the tale of two teenage runaways Mára (Tomáš Mrvík) and Heduš (Jan František Uher) that are striking out on their own traversing the frosty Czech Republic in a stolen Audi. The boys slowly building relationship provides the charm to offset the hard, cold world around them – filled with adults devoid of compassion and humanity. Falling back on boyish fantasies – of past sexual exploits and future military prowess – they find a way to navigate this coming-of-ager missing the typical summer sun. Read our review

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson