x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Triumph over time at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

A digitally restored copy of the 1960s Czech masterpiece Marketa Lazarová is dazzling festival audiences at Karlovy Vary.

Digital restoration means a deserved new lease of life for the Czech revenge masterpiece Marketa Lazarová, filmed in 1967 by Frantisek Vlacil.
Digital restoration means a deserved new lease of life for the Czech revenge masterpiece Marketa Lazarová, filmed in 1967 by Frantisek Vlacil.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has its own special place among the summer's cinematic events.

What glitters in this Bohemian town with its changeable weather is the Czech garnet, which you can find in abundance along its charming streets. That said, there are also red carpets and paparazzi. The American character actor Burt Young (Rocky, Chinatown) was on hand for the screening of Win Win, featuring Paul Giamatti, in which Young has a role. And John Turturro is also expected before Saturday's close, with his wife, Katherine Borowitz. They co-star in a drama inspired by the late Theo van Gogh's 1994 film 06, which was first remade by Turturro's close friend Steve Buscemi.

Turturro is to receive an award from the festival at the end of this week. Also here is Martin Donovan, the leading man of many a film by Hal Hartley, who will premiere Collaborator, his directorial debut.

So far, the actor making the biggest splash has been Judi Dench, who represented the cast of Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, the opening night film. Speaking at a packed press conference, the veteran performer said she had originally hoped to be a set designer in the theatre, but thought "I'll never be good enough at it". Instead, she said, she followed her brother into acting on stage. "My husband [Michael Williams] and I used to call Shakespeare 'the man who paid the rent', because for many years he was."

Classics were all over the programme this year, and not all of them were by such names as William Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë. One of the festival's emotional moments was the screening of a restored 1967 cinematic tour de force adapted from a 1931 novel - untranslatable, Czechs will warn you - by Vladislav Vancura, hardly a household word anywhere but Prague. The Czech screen epic Marketa Lazarová was released in the same year that Andrei Tarkovsky unveiled his classic Andrei Rublev, with a smaller budget and far less attention. It is a film without international stars, unless you include the then-young actress Magda Vasaryova, who since the collapse of the Soviet Union has served as a Slovak ambassador and a member of the Slovak parliament. Forty-four years later, the masterpiece by the director Frantisek Vlacil remains the country's most popular film. Now it's been restored digitally for the rest of the world to rediscover.

The story of this saga, set in 13th-century Bohemia, is an endless battle of revenge among warring clans - one pagan, one Christian. Marketa Lazarova, the young daughter of a landowner, is seized as tribute. She falls in love with her captor as war rages around them in the rugged landscape, all filmed in a vivid black and white. The luminous print shown in Karlovy Vary argues eloquently for more digital restorations.

The panoramic and poetic film's revival isn't just a triumph for cinephiles. Even the festival sponsors and politicians stayed in their seats when the lights went down, and remained there for almost three hours - rare at a festival known for its parties.

Filming Marketa Lazarová would have been tough with today's technology, but in the Czechoslovakia of the 1960s the result must have looked like a miraculously detailed canvas, filled with character actors whom the Czech public knew back then. No near-perfect print has been available for decades, so audiences haven't been able to see their best film in its best condition. Watching it, you witness the kind of grand epic that would cost Hollywood several hundred million to make today. Stylistically, the film is a meeting of East and West. The Russian influences of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky are clear; so is the imprint of Ingmar Bergman. Vlacil's masterpiece came at a moment when his peers were turning out light, witty satires that got them into trouble with the Czech police. Only a year later, following the suppression of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, most of that cinematic generation either chose exile or found few outlets for their work.

Highlights of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which finishes on Saturday, include:

Sunflower Hour

If the Karlovy Vary festival has another strength, it is satire, although this year the satirically minded Czechs aren’t leading the way. One surprise is Sunflower Hour, a no-budget mockumentary from Canada in the festival’s Forum of Independents section, which showcases films that strive for edginess and irreverence. Sunflower Hour fits the bill, as a parody of a “making of…” documentary about aspirant puppeteers for a children’s television show. These contestants are quirky rivals, but also ruthless competitors. The newcomer Aaron Houston, of Vancouver, directing his own script, draws on the work of Christopher Guest to explore the comic insincerity of “wholesome” television.

Holidays by  the Sea

In this year’s competition, the French comedy Holidays by the Sea took its own stab at reconnecting with modern classic roots. The film skewers a French tradition – the summer holiday of the ordinary family – with the affectionate wryness of the actor/director Jacques Tati (1907-82), who depicted his homeland as a place of loud children, sharp elbows and traffic jams.

Language won’t be an obstacle for audiences that don’t speak French. Holidays by the Sea isn’t a silent film, but its “language” is a slapstick vocabulary of squeaks, grunts and scrapes. Instead of haute cuisine, we see holidaymakers gorging through tables piled with lobsters. Instead of haute couture, we are treated to the unflattering summer costume of the middle-aged, middle-class – a bit like transporting the subway to the seaside.

Without words, Maria de Medeiros and the stalwart character actor Dominique Pinon lead the ensemble cast into a classic mode of French performance – pantomime. The director Pascal Rabate comes from the world of comic books (an obsession with the French, who are building a comics museum). He replaces glamour with warmhearted, witty grotesquery. Holidays by the Sea won’t help the French tourism industry but, for better or for worse, you feel as if you’re touching its characters.

The British Guide to Showing Off

This film documents a satirical British beauty contest that has become an institution, Alternative Miss World, created by the polymath artist Andrew Logan in 1972. While not a household name, Logan, 66, has an ardent following in the worlds of music and fashion. His shows – nine in all – have inspired other artists since they began as gatherings organised by Logan and his brothers. One look at the designs of the late Alexander McQueen confirms Logan’s influence, which dates to before the punk era. David Bowie, Brian Eno and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood were early collaborators. Logan, who has never made a penny on his event, was sued by a real Miss Universe for usurping the value of that pageant’s brand. A British judge took one look at Logan’s over-the-top parody and threw the case out.