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KVIFF 2023: We Have Never Been Modern, Restore Point, Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry

In my previous dispatch about Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF), I talked about how it’s difficult to spot patterns in the programming this early in the festival. The sample size just hasn’t been big enough, at least on my part, to find the parallels in the scheduling or the films that seem to be in conversation with each other. 

However, a few truths are starting to become evident this time around: Sacrifice as a theme remains prevalent, but so is dogged female independence. I’ve seen it in the Cannes titles that seeped into KVIFF, such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “About Dry Grasses” and Sean Price Williams’ “The Sweet East.” It can also be seen in the three films that compose this dispatch. While not all three works are directed by women, each film centers on an undaunted woman as the lead. These women aren’t afraid to buck norms or authority to get at the truth politically or personally.  

Set in 1937, in the small factory town of Svit, Czechoslovakia, “We Have Never Been Modern”—part of the Crystal Globe competition—is a slick period piece straddling the line between marital drama and espionage thriller. It concerns Helena (Eliska Krenková), a forward-thinking woman and the pregnant wife of shoe-company founder Alois (Miloslav König). The pair seemingly have a perfect marriage. They spend their afternoons bathing in verdant hillside ponds; Helena heads the company’s clinic, while Alois dreams of possible expansion on a quickly modernizing rural landscape. Their life is thrown into disarray when the buried body of a still-born intersex baby is discovered on the factory grounds. 

A shaken Alois calls in counter-intelligence investigators—the communist-hating, Nazi-sympathizing Robert (Milan Ondrík) and his silent partner Major (Marián Mitaš)—to determine where and when the baby died. Though she doesn’t have a degree, Helena studies medicine. So she starts her own interrogation of the facts. As the case wears on, local and national politics rage, anti-trans and anti-queer sentiments take hold; traditions are ignored in the name of progress; Alois and Helena’s marriage take a hit; Helena and Robert lock horns.

Czech director Matej Chlupacek’s “We Have Never Been Modern” fits the bevy of themes in a neat period package: Powder blues and rust oranges comprise the palette, and art deco motifs set the interior spaces. Chlupacek and cinematographer Martin Douba can sometimes be too claustrophobic in their framing, and the score can veer toward being overbearing. And yet, the movie never loses its sharp style—as captured on 35mm film—nor its progressiveness. Much of that stems from the impeccable crafts, which also reside in Krenková’s assured performance. She switches from coy to vacant to intensely curious with unmistakable ease, maintaining the line between savior, victim, and activist necessary for the film to live on. 

As a probing of what’s lost by a country—morally, culturally, and environmentally—when progress becomes synonymous with a purging of the past, and as an identity-conscious narrative, “We Have Never Been Modern” is an exhilarating swing by an astute filmmaker. 

While Robert Hloz’s dystopian sci-fi flick “Restore Point” takes place in 2041, you can sense similar moral quandaries here as in “We Have Never Been Modern.” In the film’s imaginative script written by Tomislav Cecka and Zdenek Jecelin, Detective Trochinowska (Andrea Mohylová) investigates a terrorist group called “River of Life,” linked to several murders. In this future, if you die of unnatural causes, a backup of your memory makes it possible to revive and restore you to the point of your last upload. It’s an evading of mortality that River of Life finds morally abhorrent, so they’ve been perpetrating attacks nationwide to undermine the system. Two years ago, one such attack took the life of Trochinowska’s husband. 

When the bodies of David (Matěj Hádek), the head of research for restoration, and his wife are discovered, all signs point toward the terrorist group. Those suspicions become muddled, however, by the evasiveness of the cold company head Rohan (Karel Dobrý) and the intense interest of Europol agent Mansfeld (Václav Neužil) to sweep the tragedy under the rug. Only Trochinowska and a mysteriously revived David can discover the truth of what happened the night of his murder and to the woman he loved. 

Hloz’s world-building—in a film that’s a cross between “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner”—is gripping. He loves capturing the curving surfaces of buildings, meant to mirror the circuitous route the investigation takes. From crime scenes filled with holograms to luxe interior spaces, the techy aesthetics of the production design further feeds seamlessly into the story. Hloz also doesn’t mind winking at his other prominent influence, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, during the film’s action-packed finale. Outside of the recurring motif of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” unfortunately, the score can be overwrought. 

While the film also doesn’t remake the wheel for these kinds of narratives, its vision is otherworldly, and Mohylová’s physically attuned performance is immersive. An imaginative thrill ride, "Restore Point" offers well–paced entertainment about a subject we all fear.      

The near-death experience that rocks Etero (Eka Chavleishvili) at the start of “Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry” doesn’t inspire a seismic change within this distant woman. Rather it heightens the sensuality, desire, and psychological wounds that have always dominated her tenuous relationship to people and even her own quaint home. 

Etero lives a solitary life: Her main hobby involves hiking to the river, where she can pick delicious blackberries, whose aromatic and savory elements arouse her. Here, she nearly encounters sure death when the ground beneath her feet gives way to the rocky face of the cliff it occupies; Etero claws back from the edge and stumbles back to the tidy hole-in-the-wall beauty shop she owns. There she finds Murman (Temiko Chichinadze) bringing fresh stock for the store. Etero is 48 years old, and Murman is about the same age. And yet, age has not dulled their shared desires: The lens often takes on Etero’s point of view as she overtly examines Murman’s forearms, chest, and crisp stubble. The pair make passionate love in the stockroom, becoming an item despite Murman being married. 

You'd be wrong if you think Georgian director Elene Naveriani’s “Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry” becomes a narrative about Etero being a wallflower who finds real happiness in bliss. Naveriani’s vision has more in common with “An Unmarried Woman,” in the sense that companionship for Etero offers a chance for self-exploration—an opportunity snatched away from her early in life by her deceased brother and father—rather than being an end goal. She lives daily with an unshakable ethos for what constitutes a good life, primarily tethered to nature. Etero remains true to herself, even as the local women deride her for being alone and childless; she reaffirms her choice for solitude with acidic venom when a lecherous elderly man hits on her as she enjoys her pastry. 

Chavleishvili plays the commanding Etero with a dry wit, a piercing gaze, and an uncommon sensitivity. The film’s final shot, a knockout scene happy to exist in the liminal space between dashed dreams and attained longings of a new lease on life and the unwanted ending of a chapter, is a well-spring of emotional ambiguity used as a vehicle for an incredible sense of awe by Chavleishvili. Like its protagonist, the spellbinding sensibilities of “Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry” are a treat to behold. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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