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‘Word’ review: A quiet absorbing Czech drama from the communist era

‘Word’ review: A quiet absorbing Czech drama from the communist era

For anyone familiar with the turbulent events of 1968 in modern Czech history – or even the various films about them, from Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” to several home-grown evocations of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion – director Beata Parkanová’s decision to release her second feature film “Word” just that year feels like a dramatic shortcut, coloring the process from the beginning with danger and anxiety that requires little establishment or explanation. However, there is probably a nicely outlined interior drama in this study of a middle-class family facing threats from the Communist Party, to its somewhat generalized sense of environment feels like a strategic contrast: a sharp little image framed in a hazy larger, defined by a nervous national mood which is implicitly felt rather than explicitly illustrated.

This elitism of historical peculiarity in favor of a sensually recalled spirit of the times can make “Word” – the prominent Czech element in this year’s Karlovy Vary competition – an easier sale with local audiences who can immediately fill their political gaps. But it may just as well work for the benefit of international arthouse viewers, who will find few cultural barriers to a simple, resonant story of a strange couple who are nevertheless bound by common personal and political principles, and protect the family from judgment and harassment by a increasingly conformist society.

It gives Parkanova’s film – a more ambitious and formally rigorous work than her debut “Moments” from 2018, which was also released on Karlovy Vary – a sense of quiet urgency and danger, although the violent images we associate with its historical backdrop largely kept away. -screen. There is probably no budget here for tanks in the streets, but “Word” never feels like it lacks them. Instead, the story unfolds mainly in charged, frozen rooms, seen through an often calmly stationary camera lens. When we go out, it is in sparsely populated village streets, sled slopes and beaches – the whole country, it feels, collectively holds its breath.

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We begin in the tidy, spacious but slightly crowded office of Václav (Martin Finger), a middle-aged, gentle-mannered notary public who spends his days quietly mediating inheritance disputes between troubled surviving relatives, and usually settling cases with a calm appeal to reason . and a weakly learning sense of adornment. These qualities have made him a respected figure in the small Czech town where he lives with his model-going wife Vera (Gabriela Mikulková) and their two young children – but also a main target of the Communist Party, whose local greats continue to appear unsolicited . in his office, and exerted pressure on him to join their ranks and exercise his social influence on their behalf.

Each time Václav refuses, their requests become a little less polite, suggesting serious consequences for him and his family that are never discharged, but which nevertheless delineate the drama with a palpable freeze of risk. Played by the excellent Finger with a persistent, gentle decency – physically he is somewhat curly, but always upright – Václav is unwavering in his resistance, although he worries about its impact on the family’s future. His steadfastness on that front is matched by Vera, even though they disagree on household issues: At home, the undisturbed authority he exercises in the workplace is largely left to his wife, who is often annoyed by his retiring, diplomatic parenting style.

Mikulkova’s tightly controlled behavior, however, resists the Martinet stereotype, revealing deep reserves of protective devotion to her husband when asked – especially in the second half of the film, when the most implicit effect of the Soviet invasion of Prague that summer throws Václav into a deep, stupefying depression that eventually makes him hospitalized. Vera proves her own anti-authoritarian streak when she defies orders and ordinances to visit him, and cuts through a series of departments and corridors in a persistent tracking shot, the soundtrack of fast-climbing heels, representing one of the more flashy formal coups in Parkanová and DP Tomáš Juríček’s otherwise tightly disciplined shooting style.

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Another, a sky-high outdoor drone shot that reduces the characters to moving spots while playing together on a snowy day, introduces a destabilizing tone of clinical surveillance even to a lost moment of familial joy. At the other end of the aesthetic scale, scenes are often punctured with montages of stagnant, random snapshots of the events and places just seen – an effective, slightly sad unit, composing either an unhappy family album or a curious, eerie piece of evidence.

Although political pressure from outside pushes into matters, “Word” remains most unusual and touching as a marital study, one in which ordinary moral beliefs trump everyday strife. Parkanová, who was apparently inspired by her own grandparents when writing these two main roles, avoids treating them as simple heroes or martyrs, while the relatively subdued volume of the national crisis brewing in the background brings the film closer to intimate weaknesses and domestic flaws. . . Impatient viewers may be frustrated by “Words”‘s refusal to explode at any time, but in that sense it matches characters for whom revamped dignity was not just a well-behaved lifestyle, but a survival strategy against intrusive resistance.

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