Vojnár's third feature-length film is neither the lush cinematic poetism of his debut nor the essayistic investigation of his second work. Andrew James Horton looks at how the director has synthesized the styles of his previous works and developed their themes in this unusual tale of dispossesion.
To those with an eye for poetism in film language arriving at the 16th Finále Festival of Czech Film in Plzeň, the name Ivan Vojnár would have stuck out instantly, included in the line-up with his third feature-length film Lesní chodci (Forest Walkers, 2003). Vojnár is best known for debut Cesta pustým lesem (The Way Through the Bleak Woods, 1997), a stunning visual elegy whose cinematographic style was inspired by the quality of old black and white photos and whose fluid narrative has enigmatic resonances. The film won awards at Rotterdam and Barcelona, and is now regarded as one as the finest Czech films of the 1990s.
Vojnár could have built on this and tried to become one of Europe's noted film lyricists, vying for attention alongside names such as Béla Tarr and Aleksandr Sokurov. His second feature, however, went in a rather different direction. More a documentary essay than a cinematic poem, Proroci a básníci. Kapitoly z kalendáře (Prophets and Poets: Chapters from the Calendar, 2000) cut between interviews with various people in extreme positions in Czech life—with one moment the camera on philosopher Václav Bělohradský, for example, and the next it switching to a mentally retarded street cleaner. The producers's names on the credits—Czech Television and the Film and Sociology Association (with a third partner, Gambit Film)—reveal much about what sort of work this is.
For those who had loved Vojnár's debut, it was hard to grasp what the director was trying to say in this film, apart from the fact that it continued Cesta pustým lesem's exploration of truth and beauty through the colliding worlds of the intelligentsia and characters marginalised by society (Cesta pustým lesem's plot revolves around the retirement of a Viennese doctor to an isolated and backward mountain region in Bohemia just before the outbreak of the First World War). The visual sumptuousness was stripped back to a pedestrian use of colour, and the expression was all in the words and the editing rather than the visuals. A specifically Czech focus to the piece guaranteed that international attention was very limited indeed.
Lesní chodci, described in the Plzeň catalogue as a "bitter romance" and based on a novel of the same name by Martin Ryšavý (in turn inspired by a novel by Ernst Jünger), is something of a synthesis of both these styles and themes.
Part philosopher, part alcoholic loser, Rufus (Jiří Schmitzer) encounters a soulmate in Kateřina, who finds comfort in hanging around the drunks in railway station pubs. Meanwhile, Rufus's fellow drifter Churchill becomes attached to Greta, a mentally ill teenager. The two couples each have children—Little Rufus and Little Greta—but family life does little to introduce any form of stability for the quartet: Greta vanishes from the scene altogether (perhaps having committed suicide, perhaps having been swallowed by the mental health system, perhaps having run away), Churchill dies in a drunken accident while hitching a lift on a freight train, and Rufus, despite finding work, can't shake the vagabond part of his heart.
The inability to integrate with normal society rubs off onto the two children, who when grown up meet again. Little Greta has just come off heroin, and Little Rufus is filled with rage at his father's wasted potential. When the son reads his fathers diaries, he is disappointed to find them disjointed and barely coherent accounts of inebriated that point to a life that has been drunk away. When later a theatre manager quotes Jean Genet at Little Rufus and talks about how much the playright loved life, it suggests more what he hoped his father might have managed to conjure out of his hopeless life on the margins. Yet Little Rufus does not seem to be able to manage any better, and the film ends where it starts, with Little Greta visiting him in prison.
As with Cesta pustým lesem, any plot description of Lesní chodci is by definition inadequate. The film is driven by texture and detail rather than by a narrative journey. We don't see the characters develop, but just observe them as they are. As such, this is another poetic film from Vojnár, although this time the cinematographic style is more rooted in the mundanity of industrial urban landscapes (the film was shot in the north Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem) than in a vision of extreme beauty. The unpretentious photography is in fact by Lithuanian-born Ramunas Greičius, whose ability to find poetry in the ordinary while behind the camera has added to films such as Alice Nellis' portayal of love and politics in smalltown Bohemia, Ene bene (Eeny meeny, 2000).
If Lesní chodci has something of the poetry of Cesta pustým lesem, it also has some of the essayistic elements of Proroci a básníci. Kapitoly z kalendáře, with frequent musings on the intellectual condition of the Czech Republic, its position on the edge and its "foot-dragging on the bridge between East and West." Indeed, the whole scenario of dispossessed people unable to find a position in society could be read as a wider metaphor for the position of small countries on the edge of the EU, unsure of how they fit in and fretting over being the basket cases of Europe. In a scene that appears to have given the film its name, Rufus and his son are trekking through the woods and the father explains that "In the forest, you are always safe, only you have to know how to orientate yourself," something that Rufus evidently has trouble doing and that Vojnár seems to think the Czechs have yet to master.
This essayism may, perhaps, lose Vojnár some support. Rufus certainly stretches the viewer's willingness to suspend disbelief as he gives quotations in Latin and plucks philosophical articles from his pocket to read out loud amidst shots of him so paralytically drunk that he has to be carried on the back of a station truck. However, Schmitzer's performance cannot be faulted in this, and the realisation of Rufus is done with gusto and intensity, perhaps helped by Vojnár's practice of giving the actors their lines only just before the cameras were due to roll.
As Peter Hames notes in his overview of the Finále festival in this issue of Kinoeye, Lesní chodci is a "little too elliptical to take in at a single viewing." Given that it is often hard enough to catch a Czech film on the festival circuit once, let alone twice, international attention to the film is again likely to be muted. Yet Lesní chodci deserves credit for its originality in successfully combining sensitive character observation, film poetics and philosophical study, and is interesting for trying to break out of the "long takes and not much dialogue" art house style that Cesta pustým lesem seemed to be leading the director into.
International reception of Lesní chodci will, perhaps, become confused with criticism of the dominance of intellectual thought in Czech society. As Rufus reads to his pals from a crumpled newspaper article, "Perhaps no other nation in the world has devoted as much thought to the analysis of its own failure, weaknesses and imperfections as the Czechs," an opinion he judges to be "right on the money." Some international viewers may wearily agree after seeing Vojnár's third film, but as a poetic analysis of an insecure country unsure of which way to walk Lesní chodci is absorbing viewing.
Andrew James Horton
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