This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Polish director Agniezka Holland's new miniseries, "Burning Bush," playing in New York at the Film Forum and streaming online at Fandor, is deliberately not epic. Holland has never prized spectacle over incident. There are no matte painting landscapes teeming with extras; no big speeches that give us the moral with a bow tied around it; no easy answers and few satisfying endings. Her films are set in an unfair past, which would be all blue, grey and black if it weren't for all the bloodshed.
"Burning Bush" may concern dozens of characters over the course of many months during a tempestuous time in a city under siege, but the emphasis is on people in cramped rooms, trying and failing to make sense of what's happening outside their windows. Time and again, characters look out at the world and see only danger, whether because of the men parked outside their houses in the small hours of the morning or because a dark figure is trying to open a locked door. Even more frequently, Holland's characters find themselves in mirrors; their own reflections the only thing that grounds them. She minimizes sprawling political conflict to tired faces and the seemingly insignificant objects and gestures that give life meaning.
The year is 1969. Russian troops invaded Czechoslovakia the year prior to stop a threatened push toward socialist reform, courtesy of Communist Secretary Alexander Dubcek. In protest, a student called Jan Palach took to the streets, doused himself in gasoline and lit a match.
"Burning Bush" examines the aftermath of this event in three parts, each with its own generic shape. Part one concerns the chaos that spreads to every corner of Prague. Put-upon Czech police try to divine Palach's motives without upsetting the Russian officials to whom they answer. Meanwhile, the members of Palach's student protest group try to carry on in his name, and Palach's mother (Jaroslava Pokorná) and brother (Petr Stach) try to deal with both their grief and seeing their loved one serve as a point of contention between warring political factions. Part two takes the form of a conspiracy thriller as Palach's mother hires Dagmar Burešová (Tatiana Pauhofová), a young attorney, to sue a party official for slandering her son in print. In response, the collaborationist Czech government intimidates Mrs. Palach, Burešová and her family. Part three is a courtroom drama as Burešová finally gets the case to trial. She and her assistant are thrown into disarray as their leads start to dry up, due to coercion and sabotage.