Podzimní návrat tries to breathe new life into the Czech interest in the past with an unusual historical focus—Greek refugees in 1950s Czechoslovakia—and non-linear narrative. Mark Preskett was at the world premiere.
Ten years after the Velvet Revolution and Czech film is still synonymous with the New Wave of the 1960s. New releases from New Wave veterans such as Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec and Jan Švankmajer make it difficult to forget the good old days, despite the varying quality of some of their more recent films. At the same time, younger directors such as Jan Svěrak, Filip Renč and Jan Hřebejk are finding it hard to break free from the shackles of tradition and continue to look back to the past at the expense of the present.
Czech Television's latest offering, Podzimní návrat (Returning in Autumn, 2001), is of similar ilk in that it focuses on a Czechoslovakia of the 1950s, a country in the grip of Socialism. The film is also written and directed by a 1960s graduate of Prague's famous film academy, FAMU. What sets Podzimní návrat apart is that the writer/director is a cizinec (foreigner)—George Agathonikiadis—and Communist Czechoslovakia is seen through the eyes of a young, political refugee from Greece.
The thin backbone of the film centres around events in the present. The film's protagonist is Stavros, played by Jiří Bartoška, who has just returned to Brno for the first time since his youth, when he was one of more than 3000 Greek children, who in May 1948 found refuge in the former Czechoslovakia from the civil war raging in his homeland. He has come back to the Moravian capital to take the remains of his grandparents who raised him, back to their beloved Greece. His return, though, sparks off a wave of intense memories of his formative years in the country.
|A flood of memories come rushing back|
The bulk of the film is made up of a mosaic of flashbacks. The adult Stavros wanders the streets of Brno, returning first to a now disused refugee camp, then to his former home, school and the places where he played as a child. As he visits each, the film sends us back in time to Stavros as a boy and we learn of the "life and times" of one of the children who Agathonikiadis describes as "having two homes, one in Czechoslovakia, one in Greece, though they do not know to which they really belong."
During the first half of the film, the flashbacks gradually tell us about Stavros as a child, his family, school and friends. However, as the film progresses the flashbacks become more and more randomly and all linearity is lost.
Podzimní návrat is very obviously an autobiographical film. The director was sent to Czechoslovakia as a two-year-old and after a brief stay in children’s home, was raised by his grandparents in Brno. In the film, it is the character of Stavros’s grandfather, played by George Velendzas, who influences him the most, something which was also true in real life.
My grandfather was an idealist. When he talked about Greece, he often exaggerated: everything there was bigger, more beautiful and sweeter. He wanted to instil in me a love for my native country. We actually lived two lives, one in public and one at home. When we closed the front door, we were in Greece.
While it has no interest for lovers of plot twists, intrigue or suspense, the film does paint a captivating picture of Czechoslovak life in the 1950s. The director, being an outsider who was let in, has a special—unique even—insight into a country totally closed to "strangers" at that time.
Much of the film is set in the classroom and Agathonikiadis depicts school as a place where over-zealous teachers dictate crass Communist propaganda to pupils and punish the ignorant for their basic failings in Czech general knowledge. It is also interesting to observe how Stavros, as a cizinec, is immediately branded slow by the teachers and shoved to the back of the class next to a Roma girl. In fact, similarities to the highly regimented atmosphere in the classroom portrayed in the film, especially the student vs teacher relationship, can still be seen in today.
At the same time, his larger-than-life grandfather educates him about "home’: telling him stories of his homeland, teaching his grandson patriotic songs, and, in one unforgettable scene, to eat black olives.
A life-story is not enough
In fact it is in these two settings that the film works the best. George Velendzas gives a fine performance and breathes life into a film that otherwise lacks colour and Agathonikiadis's observations of the absurdities of school systems, Communism or no Communism, are particularly poignant.
However, as the film continues it becomes more and more self-indulgent. The story of the Greek refugees is an interesting one to tell, and little is known about it. Moreover, the film is well-observed and the director clearly has a deep insight into the Czech land and people. However, Agathonikiadis is obviously relating his own story and, although it is an extraordinary one, it is not enough to make a film.
|Podzimní návrat: A Moravian Amarcord?|
After about an hour, it becomes clear that nothing is actually going to happen in the film. Many of the characters we are introduced to are interesting, Vlastimil Brodský's cobbler, who looks after his mentally disabled son, for example; but with no story to help the film along, they are a mere distraction.
Agathonikiadis refers to his attempt to immortalize his youth spent in Brno as a "Moravian Amarcord." But it is difficult to compare this Greek/Czech co-production to Fellini's Oscar-winning film of his youth in 1930s Rimini. The director devotes too much time to artistic shots of Bartoška's moody moments taking emotional-laden drags on his cigarettes; even longer on pointless scenes of Stavros's youth. At 114 minutes, the film is about an hour too long and the film may have been better served up as an hour-long TV drama or even documentary. Even more incredible is the director's desire to film two more "returns" which he has already written.
Reaction in the Czech press to Podzimní návrat when it opened for national distribution in Brno on 10 October 2001 was mixed, and it will be interesting to see whether the public take to the film. The presence of Jiří Bartoška, the President of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and a veteran of Czech film and theatre, in the lead role will undoubtedly help draw an audience. Whether it will be enough to make a success of another Czech film that takes a look at how life was like, remains to be seen.
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