An exhausting nine-day whirlwind of films, parties, celebrities, scorching sunshine and sudden rainstorms drew to a close this week here in Karlovy Vary, the fairy-tale spa town nestling among heavily wooded hills in the north-western corner of the Czech Republic. Judi Dench, John Turturro and other stars have already passed through the town's annual film festival to pick up awards and promote movies.
It may not have the worldwide media profile of Cannes or Sundance, but Karlovy Vary is one of Europe's oldest and most elegant film festivals, growing in critical stature over the two decades since the former Czechoslovakia emerged from more than 40 years of Soviet communist domination. The ghosts of fallen empires are everywhere here, from the hulking Cold War concrete edifice of the Hotel Thermal, which serves as the festival's hub, to the palatial theatres and sumptuous screening rooms scattered throughout the town's picturesque historical centre.
This year's festival showcased almost 200 films from more than 50 countries, a quarter of them world premieres. More than 120,000 tickets were also sold to a youthful and palpably keen audience. Every screening I attended was busy, even for obscure films, and most were full. If you ever fear that the serious-minded film fan is an endangered species, just come to Karlovy Vary in July. The enthusiasm is infectious.
Films from the Middle East were scattered through the programme, including the winner of the festival's biggest prize, the Crystal Globe. The director Yossi Madmoni's Restoration is a low-key but beautifully observed family drama, set in a modern-day Israel where Jews, Arabs, Europeans and Asians coexist. There is no political subtext here, just a superbly crafted, understated story about emotional and generational tension.
Also impressive was Man Without a Cell Phone by the Palestinian-Israeli director Sameh Zoabi, an agreeably sunny family comedy about the everyday struggles of middle-class Palestinians living inside Israel. Funding for Zoabi's film came from Qatar and Belgium, but also from Israel's ministry of culture, which seems odd, given the story's core message about ingrained anti-Arab prejudice in Israeli society. "It's very simple," the director told me at his packed festival premiere. "They didn't read the script!"
Several European and North American films in Karlovy Vary also had strong Middle East connections. The French director David Dusa's Flowers of Evil, an experimental drama about a budding romance between an Iranian girl and a Parisian Muslim boy, combines fictional scenes with online footage from the bloody street clashes triggered by Iran's 2009 presidential elections. The complexities of East-West culture clash was also a key theme of the intriguing but overlong documentary Arab Attraction, a study of an Austrian feminist and art teacher who converts to Islam to marry a Yemeni man 20 years her junior.
Meanwhile, the Canadian director Ivan Grbovic's official competition entry, Romeo Eleven, offered a sensitive and absorbing portrait of a young man from a Lebanese immigrant family struggling to cope with disability and parental pressures in contemporary Montreal. The star, Ali Ammar, gives a highly impressive performance for a non-professional novice. Grbovic's film earned a Special Mention from the festival's Ecumenical Jury.
Now separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the former Czechoslovakia was always a highly respected cinematic nation, producing master directors such as Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel, both of whom appeared in the short promotional films that opened each screening in Karlovy Vary. Inevitably, work from both sides of this once-single state was strongly represented in the festival programme. Indeed, the Special Jury Prize actually went to a rare joint venture between the two countries, the director Martin Šulík's Gypsy, a stark drama about Slovakia's oppressed Romany minority, which is already proving to be politically controversial after Slovak Railways refused to carry advertisements for the film.
Another noteworthy homegrown production at the festival was the film-directing debut of the celebrated playwright, anti-Soviet dissident and former Czech president Vaclav Havel. A little stagey but full of impish humour, Leaving is Havel's adaptation of his own 2007 stage play about the former leader of an unnamed country facing pressure from the new regime to vacate his grand, government-owned mansion. Containing homages to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare's King Lear, this bittersweet absurdist satire is also peppered with knowingly autobiographical nods to its author. Havel even makes a small cameo appearance, while his actress wife Dagmar Havlova plays a starring role.
Karlovy Vary has a long tradition of showcasing films from the former eastern bloc, which even share their own separate competition category. Despite the long history of tension between the two countries, Russian cinema also had a strong presence at this year's festival. Enjoying its prestige premiere was the Russian-American director Victor Ginzburg's hallucinatory comedy Generation P, a sprawling adaptation of the author Viktor Pelevin's cult magic-realist novel about the new breed of gangster oligarchs and political puppet-masters who filled the power vacuum during Moscow's post-communist boom years. This surreal roller-coaster ride through the Wild East is dense and confusing in places, but never boring.
An even bleaker portrait of contemporary Russia came across in Igor Voloshin's commended competition entry Bedouin, a stark drama starring Olga Simonova as an impoverished Ukrainian woman who strikes a deal to become a surrogate mother for a shady St Petersburg businessman in order to finance her dying daughter's cancer treatment. When her scheme unravels into violence and treachery, she takes a last, desperate trip to the Bedouin regions of Jordan in search of the magical curative powers of camel's milk. A bleak story, but well-acted and grippingly told.
Two hard-hitting British features also had European premieres at Karlovy Vary. The directing debut of the actor Paddy Considine, Tyrannosaur is a harrowing portrait of blighted inner-city lives which owes a clear stylistic debt to Ken Loach's school of hard-knuckled social realism.
The grizzled Scottish actor Peter Mullan, a Loach veteran, plays a violent alcoholic trying to claw back some of his shattered life by taking Olivia Coleman's troubled charity shop worker under his protective wing. Which may sound dauntingly grim on paper, but Considine keeps the action compellingly gritty, and clearly knows how to wring powerfully authentic performances from his fellow actors.
Memorable for different reasons is the director Ben Wheatley's Kill List, a hair-raising thriller about two British veterans of the Iraq war who decide to exploit their military skills to earn big money as hit men. But it soon becomes clear that the main anti-hero, played by Neil Maskell, is a borderline psychopath with anger-management problems. Wheatley pulls off an audacious gear change for the film's closing section, switching from gritty crime drama to nightmarish horror-movie bloodbath. Many of us stumbled from the Karlovy Vary midnight screening in shell-shocked silence. And yes, that is a hearty recommendation.
Speaking of midnight movies, some of the most enjoyable films at the festival were the outlandish comedies scheduled for one-off late-night screenings. Shot in the style of The Blair Witch Project, the Norwegian director Andre Ovredal's Troll Hunter follows a group of amateur filmmakers on a search to find Norway's notorious fairy-tale monsters. Which they do, with hilarious but brutal consequences.
The veteran Dutch star Rutger Hauer also earned big laughs as a vengeful tramp in Jason Eisener's Canadian comedy Hobo With a Shotgun, an enjoyably excessive spoof of trashy 1980s action films featuring groaningly corny dialogue and lashings of gore.
Hardly nourishing material for highbrow film buffs, admittedly. But after a week in Karlovy Vary dominated by hard-hitting social realism and vintage eastern-bloc bleakness, this delirious double-barrelled blast of comic-book violence felt like welcome light relief.