It's strange and remarkable that Burning Bush, a four-hour miniseries directed by Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland and originally commissioned by HBO Europe, has its Los Angeles premiere at an AMC in Torrance next Wednesday. The docudrama played in New York earlier this summer and is one of many notable art-house films to receive theatrical distribution there but not here. Were it not for the efforts of the increasingly essential South Bay Film Society, Ms. Holland's opus may not be seen in L.A. at all.
The movie opens with, and branches out from, a university student named Jan Palach self-immolating in the middle of Prague to protest the Soviet occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia. He leaves behind a vague manifesto indicating that a number of other "human torches" will follow suit if their demands aren't met. A martyr's legacy is rarely decided by him or herself, and when a person commits to something so extreme in such a volatile, unstable political environment it's inevitable that warring factions will seek to use that sacrifice for their own ends.
Holland documents this situation with aplomb. Dissident students, worried parents and collaborating bureaucrats may be familiar staples of late '60s unrest, but they're convincingly portrayed here. This realism, combined with a somber tone and focus on the behind-the-scenes workings of of an authoritarian regime, make Burning Bush a little too reminiscent of the overpraised The Lives of Others. Just because Eastern Bloc period pieces are almost always stately and elegiac doesn't mean a largely compelling movie like this shouldn't still manage to surprise us once or twice over the course of four hours. —Michael Nordine
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BURNING BUSH | AMC Rolling Hills 20 | Wednesday, Aug. 13, 6:30 p.m. | southbayfilmsociety.com