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KVIFF 2018: Winter Flies and Opening Night

There is a subway train in the Zurich airport that has occupied my imagination ever since I first stepped foot in it 11 years ago. I was among a group of film students who paid to attend the Cannes Film Festival as part of the American Pavilion program. In order to reach the gate that would take us to our plane bound for Nice, we boarded a train that whisked us through a tunnel so strange, it would’ve made Willy Wonka envious. A series of zoetrope-like images had been grafted onto the walls of the tunnel, thus creating the illusion that a woman was standing outside the train, winking at the passengers. An atonal choir mixed with barnyard animals overheard on the speakers only added to the exquisite surrealism. 

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Over the years, I began to think I had imagined this bizarre ride, until I took it again this past Friday, during my second journey outside of North America. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off a film festival journey than taking a train showcasing old fashioned movie magic. Only this time around, I was bound for the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and unlike at Cannes, I wasn’t going there to help Malcolm McDowell with his wi-fi. I’m here now in Karlovy Vary, providing festival coverage for RogerEbert.com, a task that would’ve seemed like a far-off dream to me back in 2007 

When Roger served on the festival jury in 2002, he described Karlovy Vary as “an elaborately picturesque spa town” where geysers of water “bubble up steaming hot from twelve springs and smell like they’d better be good for you.” He felt that the festival was a throwback to the 70s, and indeed, the audiences here are comprised largely of cinephiles from all over the Czech Republic, who annually make a pilgrimage to honor heroes like Miloš Forman and Jan Švankmajer. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to be surrounded by movie lovers utterly uninterested in discussing box office results or the latest installment of the Marvel franchise. Forman, who died this past April at age 86, was a beloved staple of the festival, and his spirit resounded throughout the opening night festivities on Friday. 

A print of Forman’s 1965 gem, “The Loves of a Blonde,” was screened for an audience that doubled over with laughter during several uproarious sequences of protected awkwardness. An outdoor concert of music from Forman’s films could be heard throughout the city, and culminated in a thunderous fireworks display. All of this was preceded by a montage of Forman’s work that included a prophetic line from “The People vs. Larry Flynt” in which Edward Norton cautions against censorship, stressing that it will result in “walls being built in places you never expected.” Though escaping the 24-hour media domination of Donald Trump is immensely welcome, the Czech Republic and America have much more in common than the colors of their oft-displayed national flags. The fact Czech president Miloš Zeman managed to be elected for a second term despite being rightfully dubbed the “European Trump” has caused many citizens to fear the rising threat of fascism. 

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This was apparent during the festival’s opening ceremony, where one of this year’s honorees, Tim Robbins, earned a prolonged standing ovation with his stirring speech where he compared President Trump to the petulant monster Biff in “Back to the Future,” a role the actor had auditioned for 33 years ago. When Marty McFly traveled from the 1980s to the “good ol’ days” of the 1950s, he found bullying, intolerance and ignorance. Robbins noted that we are “living through a Marty McFly moment” where technological advancements have caused us to move back in time, erasing the marks of progress that have been made over recent decades. “We have to figure out how to get back to the future,” Robbins declared, while applauding KVIFF for championing the sort of stories that “ignite the flames of a revolution.” 

Each year, the festival produces a hilariously self-deprecating trailer featuring a past honoree who is less than thrilled with having been awarded the festival’s top prize, the Crystal Globe. Forman uses his statuette to crush pills, Jude Law turns his into a hood ornament, and in the latest one (embedded below), Casey Affleck takes his to a pawn shop run by foul-mouthed Sandy Morton, who informs him that she already has several taking up space on her shelf. Yet considering how Robbins held up his Crystal Globe with immense pride as the crowd erupted, I highly doubt he’ll be pawning his accolade anytime soon.

At last year’s European Union Film Festival in Chicago, I had the great fortune of seeing Olmo Omerzu’s “Family Film,” a riveting and startlingly funny picture from the Czech Republic that quickly became one of my favorite foreign titles sorely deserving of U.S. distribution. Its final act is anchored by a canine who delivers the best stranded-on-an-island performance since Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” That alone is worth the price of admission, yet the rest of the film is equally memorable in its provocative dissection of familial roles in disarray. When I stepped off the plane in Prague to take my shuttle to Karlovy Vary, I was stunned to discover that I’d be riding with Eliška Křenková, a marvelous actress whose portrayal of a flirtatious yet misguided friend in “Family Film” is impossible to forget. We both ended up watching the trailer of Omerzu’s latest film, “Winter Flies,” for the first time on her iPhone. 

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“Olmo makes movies not for the glory or the money, but for the love of making them,” Křenková told me, and I believe her whole-heartedly. “Winter Flies,” an Official Selection at KVIFF, is the third feature from Omerzu, and it further cements the 33-year-old Slavic director’s status as a force to be reckoned with. His gift for eliciting authentic and richly textured work from untrained talent has never been more apparent than it is in the case of Tomás Mrvík. This first-time leading man may have never acted before, but by age 14, he certainly knew how to drive, and that is a crucial skill for his role as Mára, an outcast whose method of revolting against an indifferent world is to opt for a life on the road. Mára is joined on his misadventures by his pal, Heduš (Jan Frantisek Uher), a boy whose horniness is rivaled only by his social ineptitude. Like many kids his age, he has a cavalier way of discussing his sexual obsessions, yet is most comfortable when glancing through the scope on his toy gun, magnifying a world that consistently feels out of reach. 

I’d like to see an entire film centering on the hitchhiker (Křenková) who temporarily becomes entangled in the boys’ tale. Her face bruised by the residue of abuse, she is perpetually on the run from men who treat her as a carnal object, and Omerzu wisely refuses to soften the threat of sexual harassment reverberating beneath Heduš’ comical leering. Amidst the homophobic taunts voiced primarily by their elders, the boys share an unmistakable intimacy that carries echoes of “Superbad.” It’s appropriate that their only sex scene is with each other, as they masturbate into a sweater left behind by Křenková. Most American comedies wouldn’t have the nerve to hold on this scene for any longer than the duration of a fleeting sight gag, yet cinematographer Lukás Milota keeps his camera focused on the boys’ faces until they climax, causing the moment to go from funny and embarrassing to oddly touching. With its frost-covered compositions contrasting with the summery hues typical of the road movie genre, “Winter Flies” turns the warmth of a car into a sanctuary for lost souls, whether they be human or canine (yes, there’s a heartrending dog in this one too). 

Mára and Heduš are only two years older than the 12-year-old protagonists in Omerzu’s debut feature, 2012’s “A Night Too Young,” and they possess the sort of vocabulary junior high schoolers utilize to feign sexual prowess. Seeing through all of Mára’s games is a police officer (Lenka Vlasáková), whose interrogation of the boy is juxtaposed with the events that led to his capture. When she says, “Your mom must be worried about you,” Mára curtly dismisses the claim by reciting the Trump-branded chant, “Fake news.” As the boy repeatedly deflects her questions, the officer’s behavior grows more and more unnerving, leading to the most potently emotional sequence in the picture, where Vlasáková resorts to brutally cruel psychological methods to extract information. Mrvík’s face, viewed largely in close-up and angrily streaked with tears, is flat-out electrifying. He’s a real find, as are composers Monika Midriaková (Omerzu’s fiancé) and Šimon Holy, whose inventive score lends a dash of “Moonrise Kingdom”-esque whimsicality. It also accentuates the melancholic beauty of the two boys’ friendship, as they cruise along a road to nowhere while occasionally falling asleep at the wheel. 

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