Frank Capra in Film Spa

The Film Festival in Karlovy Vary brought together “progressive film workers from around the world” for discussions about “how the film arts participate in the fight for peace, how they contribute towards understanding and cooperation among nations.”

That‘s how the fifth Karlovy Vary Film Festival was described in Rudé právo, The Red Truth, the mouthpiece of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Behind those words one can sense the long battle between film aesthetes and the party ideologues, a battle that would mark the festival for the first decades of its existence. Through the years the festival has gone through many highs and lows, usually depending on how much freedom the government allowed the festival organizers at any given time.

The first few years the festival was a shop window for Soviet cinema but during the late fifties and the sixties the festival slowly became more international and the Czechs themselves were making some great films, culminating in the Czech New Wave, a couple of Foreign Film Oscars and directors like Jiří Menzel, Miloš Forman and Věra Chytilova. But during the Cold War the Eastern Bloc was only allowed one A-list film festival per year – which meant that between 1959 and 1993 Karlovy Vary and the festival in Moscow took turns. Which explains why this 69 year old festival just finished it‘s 50th edition this summer. For that reason one of the films screened was Spa Cinema (Filmová lázeň) – a playful historical account of the festival’s history.

It shows how the festival blossomed during the Prague spring but also how it‘s deepest crises was in the decade after the tanks had rolled over that short-lived spring, as the Communist‘s grip on Czech culture became ever tighter. Which made the 1990 festival perhaps the most memorable – as Miloš Forman rode into Karlovy Vary on his bike and a whole back catalogue on previously banned films could finally be screened.

Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Tony Curtis and other foreign movie stars nevertheless often visited the festival when there was a thaw in relations between east and west and perhaps the most memorable scene of the movie is where a clownish Czech journalistic – some sort of early Ali G – interviews legendary director Frank Capra. There is a small roundtable turning in front of them, with a circle of wine glasses, and it circles so there‘s always a fresh glass in front of Capra. Only every time Capra tries to answer a question the journalist grabs a new wine glass, always obscuring Capra from the camera and totally unnerving  the director.

But these days there are new journalists around and the Cold war is but a distant memory as this otherwise quiet spa town is filled with film goers. It‘s even more crowded than previous festivals I‘ve visited, since this is an anniversary festival, the heat is 35 degrees and it starts with a three day weekend, since Jan Hus was burned at the stake exactly 600 years ago on the Monday. The Hussite wars that followed are one of the main reasons Czechs have remained the leaast religious nation in Europe – but you start to question your lack of faith as soon as you enter the cinema.

Ea, the daughter of God, goes through a washing machine tunnel in The Brand New Testament

Because God does exist – and he lives in Brussels. That‘s at least what a young Belgian girl claims in The Brand New Testament – and she should know, since said God is her father. Yet this is very much a deadbeat God. He‘s a bad father, an even worse husband and an absolutely hopeless Almighty. He‘s at his best unshaven in his bathrobe in front of the computer, choosing horrid deaths for the humans he created in his own image.

This far-fetched concept totally works for the most part, thanks to a sharp script and lively direction from Jaco Van Dormael. He channels the manic energy of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, including with the idiosyncrasies Jeunet’s Amelie. Ea, God‘s daughter, is a highly likeable kid who gets advice from her deceased brother Jesus – who talks to her through a plastic statue of himself. The advice is to find six new apostles in addition to the twelve apostles of Jesus and write six new testaments to shake things up. She starts shaking them up before though – by sending every human on the planet the date of their death in a text message – which seems to have a liberating effect on most of them. When people don‘t have to worry about death they can finally start to live life to the fullest.

The Brand New Testament’s God enters the world he created

Ea‘s first recruit is a bum to document the gospels and her first two apostles are a one-armed lady and an weary office drone. It‘s strangely beautiful to watch God‘s daughter find the essence in those unfulfilled lives and the first half of the film is actually almost the perfect film – this was a gospel I was ready to preach as soon as I left the cinema. But unfortunately the other four apostles are more of a mixed bag. The sex maniac and the serial killer don‘t connect with you and even if Catherine Deneuve is good as the weary upper-class Martine but bringing an actual ape along as her lover means the film starts to lose the grounding that had helped you connect with the film. Yet the film comes alive again with the last apostle, a boy Ea‘s age who wants to dress as a girl for the last few days of his life. The film is never boring – it‘s just a shame how it blows the opportunity to be a full blown masterpiece.

Albanian she-males and the white saviour

But the Christian customs arent the only strange customs in Europe. Albania has the kanun– an ancient set of laws that are still followed in certain parts of the country. Those rules include blood feud not dissimilar to the Icelandic sagas, but a more unusual rule in the kanun is that women have the option to become men – as long as they take a vow of chastity. In return they can do all the other things men can do, such as drink rakia, smoke cigarettes and carry guns – and are exempted from many unpleasant female obligations. Sworn Virgin tells the story of a woman who decides, after living as a man for fourteen years, to reclaim her femininity. It happens during a visit to her sister in Italy, but in flashbacks we see how those two sisters had avoided their assigned fate, each in her fashion. One avoided a love-less marriage by following her true love to Italy, while the other rejected her own sex.

Hana / Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) is the Sworn Virgin

This is not really a film about transgender or cross-dressing issues in the 21st Century sense – because while I‘m sure some of these women want to be men or dress as men most are simply rebellious women who chose the only path available for them to be free, to sacrifice femininity and sex for the freedom to do … everything else. That very much applies to Hana, who most people call Mark, and through her story the film in its way traces the very roots of the patriarchy in a present that feels very ancient. It also about how Hana‘s repressed sexuality breaks out and while the men of the film are in a way the villains they are complex ones. The father at first seems a relic from another age, but you soon realize he‘s protecting his daughters from a harsh society and is surprisingly perceptive to their inner lives. We also have a touching yet hilarious funeral scene where the men carry a coffin and sing a jolly masculine song while the coffin is lowered down to the ground.

Gunnar Jónsson as title character Fúsi in Virgin Mountain

But lets end this by travelling half-way back home to Iceland. The festival organizers seem to be quite the Icelandophiles, for the third year in a row there was an Icelander in the main jury, actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who won the acting prize here two years ago. There were also three Icelandic films screened, Cannes winner Rams, Tribeca winner Virgin Mountain and short film Chum. Both features have comic actors playing against type – although that is perhaps something more striking to Icelanders to foreigners. Rams leading actor Sigurjón Sighvatsson has certainly been playing serious roles for decades now – but he‘s also been in Iceland‘s most successful comedy show for quarter of a century, so he tends to be typecast more as a comic. Meanwhile Gunnar Jónsson, The lead of Virgin Mountain, is perhaps not that different from other films and TV shows he‘s been in – but the main difference is that this time the film takes him seriously, rather than using him as a comic relief.

Jakob Oftebro as Wulff in Daniel Dencik’s debut feature, Gold Coast

In the main competition there is an old colleague of Dagur Kári, Daniel Dencik, the editor of Noi the Albino. Now he´s a director in his own right and after showing two documentaries at this festival he returns with his first feature, Gold Coast. It‘s about what used to be called Danish Guinea, now a part of Ghana, and just like Iceland it was under Danish rule in the 19th Century. But there the similarities probably end – their treatment of the Africans being a thousand times worse. The film takes place in 1837 when the slave trade has, in name at least, been abolished. Yet when Wulff, a blue-eyed natural scientist with high ideals, travels to the Gold Coast he soon learns there are a lot of things still rotten in this part of the Danish colonial empire.

This is a powerful film, a feverish journey of an innocent white man into the heart of darkest Africa – you can feel the fever and madness of this dramatic tale. Dencik also seems genuinely interested in the landscape of the continent and delivers that fascination to the audience, as well as the cruelty and inhumanity of the colonial masters. Yet the film has one big – and all too familiar – flaw; the fact that the hero is in spite of everything still white and the locals are almost exclusively stuck in supporting roles. This is the white man confronting his own evil – yet confronting it very much on his own terms. Despite those flaws the Gold Coast remains a powerful, albeit terribly white, film.

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

This article originated as a radio segment in Icelandic, broadcast on  July 30th in Víðsjá, a cultural show at the Icelandic National Broadcaster. You can listen to the Icelandic version here (at 22.22).

Trailers for the films mentioned:

Spa Cinema

The Brand New Testament

Sworn Virgin

The Gold Coast