In Stestí (Something Like Happiness), one of the stronger Czech contenders at the 41st Karlovy Vary Film Festival and a domestic box-office smash in 2005, three floundering youngsters struggle to get out from under the corrosive miseries of life in the rundown post-Soviet tower block in which they’ve grown up. Nothing could be more different from the dead-end provincial town that offers them no future than Karlovy Vary, a sleek spa town nestled in the mountains of Bohemia, two hours’ scenic drive from Prague. Formerly known as Karlsbad, when it was a preferred watering hole for vacationing Germans, the place now crawls with nouveau riche Russians who saunter through the city’s central promenade spending big at the swank boutiques, sampling the heavy Czech food and swigging natural hot-spring water from spouted, animal-shaped cups.
Like Prague, Karlovy Vary is a bizarre mix of ceremonial historic preservation, flamboyant hipsterism and leftover Soviet bombast. The phallic Thermal Hotel, which serves as festival HQ, soars like some Stalinist relic above lovely old buildings and churches that hug the hillsides and, immaculately painted in tasteful pale yellow and tans, look as fresh as if they’d been touched up every week. Festival screenings were an idyllic 15-minute walk down polished cobblestones from our pleasant hilltop hotel beside the crystal-clear Ohre River that runs through town. Yet to someone who has lived most of her life in crumbling cities, all this ferociously primped beauty was a touch unnerving, like living inside someone else’s face-lift. “Go where you like in the old quarters of Europe, it is the same,” writes British playwright Alan Bennett, whose diaries I was reading. “Decay has been arrested, the cracks filled; in Padua, Perpignan and Prague urban dentistry has triumphed.”
The festival is a genial, unpretentious mishmash of range from Pedro Almodóvar’s acclaimed Volver to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle to the ho-hum but popular (in Karlovy Vary at least) American indie Sherrybaby, with Maggie Gyllenhaal as a mixed-up parolee trying to become a reasonable mother to her little girl. Supported, no doubt, by the swarms of exuberant student backpackers who overrun the festival, sleeping rough and loving every movie they see with a cheerful lack of discrimination, Sherrybaby ended up winning awards for both best film and best actress. One American standout was Kyle Henry’s Room, a dreamily expressionistic work about a working-class Texan woman troubled by visions of a cavernous empty room. There were two films about ethnic Los Angeles: Quinceañera, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s nifty kitchen-sink drama about Latino life in Echo Park (of which more when it opens locally next week), and Lee Yoon-Ki’s Love Talk, a nicely shot but irredeemably hangdog feature about Korean-American lost youth looking for love and meaning in the City of Angels.
Star wattage was endearingly low-end in Karlovy Vary: Danny Huston was in town shepherding a retrospective of his father John’s films; and I saw British actor Tom Wilkinson running around with half the cast of Mike Barker’s limp Oscar Wilde adaptation A Good Woman. At the exuberant opening-night ceremony, Andy Garcia, who breezed in with his Cuba film The Lost City, gamely accepted an award for outstanding contribution to cinema (well, he was good in The Godfather: Part III) while behind him muscled gymnasts in rubber hair dangled from trapezes and bobbed on trampolines. Local critics and filmmakers seemed jazzed by an act that was as lost on those of us unacquainted with post–Czech New Wave humor as was the festival trailer, which involved a howling man in a white vinyl suit and a furry blue backpack that looked like a brain, who seemed in imminent danger of being sucked into the web of a giant black plastic spider.
As with most regional festivals, the reason to go to Karlovy Vary is to take the measure of local cinema and catch foreign films that, given the decline in public appetite for subtitled fare, may or may not make it to art houses outside New York. The programming was spotty in both categories: Fleeing from a talky Polish drama about two acclaimed national poets, I walked in on a lively international selection of shorts, introduced by a pair of affable Czechs who announced they would “compensate for our extremely short film” by strumming on a miniature guitar. More Czech humor, I guess. I didn’t last above 45 minutes in Mouth to Mouth, a self-important drama by Björn Runge about a Danish family trying to rally around its drug-addicted daughter, but was impressed by Frozen City, Finnish filmmaker Aku Louhimies’ far less mawkish film about a working stiff trying to avoid losing custody of his kids, which won the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize.
Lucas Belvaux, who made a goofily charming 2002 trilogy about ordinary Belgians, came up disappointingly short with The Right of the Weakest, an oddly dissonant dramedy with thriller pretensions about a bunch of steelworkers plotting to rob the rich to help the poor. Thai filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, about a man on the run after killing his lover (also his boss’s wife), isn’t a patch on his wonderful Last Life in the Universe, but the movie, gorgeously shot by Christopher Doyle, has a certain creepy appeal. By far the best non-European movie I saw was Family Law, Argentine filmmaker Daniel Berman’s beguiling tribute to his Jewish father or, for all I know, the one he wishes he had. A celebration of the unsung goodness of an unassuming man of habit, the movie, like Berman’s equally dad-fixated 2003 Lost Embrace, is warm and deep enough to give humanism a good name.
The highlight of the festival, though, was Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s political satire 12:08 East of Bucharest, which won the Golden Camera Award at Cannes this year. Sixteen years after the fall of the dictator Ceausescu, three residents of a hick town come together on a local television chat show to reminisce about their alleged revolutionary zeal on that fateful day. Uproariously funny and bitingly critical of social hypocrisy before and after Ceausescu, this brilliant movie is easily the best in what, to judge by other regional films at Karlovy Vary, is a burgeoning and fertile effort to come to grips with post-Soviet malaise in Central and Eastern Europe — living proof that when it comes to politics, comedy is the sincerest form of dissidence.