David Weissman and Bill Weber, We Were Here, 2011, black-and-white and color film, 90 minutes. Production stills.


AT THE TIME of Harvey Milk’s murder in 1978, the virus that would come to be known as HIV was already present in San Francisco, with an estimated 10 percent of the city’s gay population unknowingly infected. By 1981, that number had risen to 50 percent. The 1980s would encapsulate the largest tragedy in the city’s history, but the decade was also—as We Were Here, a new documentary, suggests—a moment of great heroism and feats of compassion for both the living and the dying.

While such a vast topic would seem to necessitate a chaotic cast of thousands, director David Weissman instead focuses on five diverse individuals from the trenches: writer Ed Wolf, who began working as a volunteer in the city’s first AIDS hospital ward and now works in the field of HIV prevention; activist and current director of the GLBT Historical Society, Paul Boneberg; artist Daniel Goldstein, himself HIV positive for more than twenty years; Guy Clark, owner of a Castro flower shop; and nurse Eileen Glutzer, who worked on some of the earliest HIV/AIDS medical studies.

Weissman skillfully employs a talking-head approach, interspersed with filmic and photographic footage from the period, to convey an extremely painful history. We Were Here moves through the earliest days of the “gay cancer” to the formation of political activist groups such as ACT-UP in response to the political establishment’s indifference to the epidemic, and then into the mid-‘90s, when the obituary pages in the Bay Area Reporter finally began to diminish.

Thirty years on, the film reminds us of the cataclysmic demise of an entire generation of artists, cultural figures, activists, and people who perhaps never had the chance to realize their potential. We Were Here leaves us to wonder how different the world might look today if those lost to AIDS were still here to help shape it.

Travis Jeppesen

We Were Here runs at the Castro Theater in San Francisco February 25–March 3, 2011. For more details, click here.

Robert Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest, 1951, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 115 minutes.


FOR THOSE who know Robert Bresson only as the director of A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and later films, the newly subtitled 35-mm print of Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is must viewing. Consistent with Bresson’s tendency to confront a spiritual perspective with an indifferent world, Diary is based on the 1937 novel by Georges Bernanos and is among the few film adaptations of a work of literature to equal its source. Structured in the form of a diary kept by an earnest young priest whose labors to stir the souls of his first parish in a provincial village are met with coldness and hostility, the narrative is both a microcosm of the human condition and a via dolorosa that leads, inevitably, to the protagonist’s death. Bresson does not soften the meanness of Bernanos’s characters or excuse the primal flaws that transcend class. All—farmers as well as local aristocracy, children as well as adults—play out the spectrum of the seven deadly sins. Neither comforting fable nor lofty celebration of pastoral devotion, Diary is the darkest, most psychologically penetrating movie ever made about a priest and his vocation.

One of the few indisputable masterpieces of post–World War II French cinema, the film excels in all the characteristics of the classical tradition that the later Bresson would curtail, if not renounce: memorable performances, dramatic scenes, a powerful musical score, and atmospheric cinematography. On the other hand, the integration of diary entries, their filmic enactments, and the voiceovers of the protagonist is something Bresson would continue to refine to leaner proportions in other films. And, as the tight and elliptical editing that marks his later work confirms, never again would he indulge in extended long takes, deployed with such aplomb in Diary to profoundly emotional effect. No filmmaker I can think of went on to take such pains to dismantle the very grounds of such an achievement in pursuit of a more disciplined, purer form of film art.

The more expansive style of Diary seems tied to Bresson’s discovery of Claude Laydu, a Belgian actor whose prior stage experience was eclipsed by the astonishing impact he made in this, his first film. Laydu’s face, voice, and demeanor radiate an inner conviction and divine possession matched in film history only by Maria Falconetti’s incarnation of Joan in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). So devoted to the project was Laydu that he spent months living among priests to absorb their lifestyle and carried the Bernanos novel around with him at all times. In him, Bresson found not only the embodiment of his saintly, tormented priest but the model of protagonists in his subsequent work: a figure of angelic, impassioned youth tested by but ultimately triumphant over worldly corruption. The significance of this discovery is evidenced by many long-held shots of Laydu’s face, which the slowly approaching camera searches for signs of its divine fire. In other long takes, the respectful distance and patient gaze of the camera imbue the space between the priest and other characters with an intimacy and rapport befitting the former’s ministerial efforts to retrieve souls from loneliness and despair.

A new print of a classic is always welcome, especially when extraordinary care has been taken with English subtitles. Though in every film from A Man Escaped (1956) to L’Argent (1987), Bresson would become more exacting about the relationships between image and word, image and sound, and onscreen and off-screen space, the importance of these hallmarks is already apparent in Diary of a Country Priest. It is a pleasure, therefore, to report that the new print of Diary not only offers clearer translations in many instances but is also sensitive to the placement of subtitles, bringing them into view, for the most part, not a second sooner or later than the French dialogue or voiceover. Instead of struggling with a subtitle while the image or moment that induced it has passed, we grasp both simultaneously. Such care respects, even parallels, Bresson’s attention to formal relationships. Given the density of the verbal text in Diary of a Country Priest, this could not have been easy. Thanks are due, therefore, to translator and subtitler Lenny Borger and to his editors at Rialto Pictures, Bruce Goldstein and Adrienne Halpern.

Tony Pipolo

A restored 35-mm print of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest runs at Film Forum in New York February 25–March 10. For more details, click here.

Matt Porterfield, Putty Hill, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes.


STORY OF ABSENCE, OR ABSENCE OF STORY? Matt Porterfield’s second feature, Putty Hill, follows the tried-and-true template of a community brought together by a funeral, our surrogate an expat who has returned home. Set in a leafy, desolate-seeming suburb of Baltimore—a city defined in the last decade, fictionally, by The Wire—the film ports the discursive wait-and-see global-festival cinema indebted to Pedro Costa to an American working-class milieu. With the exception of singer Sky Ferreira (who, as the deceased’s cousin Jenny, belts out a song at the moving karaoke wake), the cast of young survivors consists of nonprofessionals who range from affectless to startlingly present.

The film is attuned to the reflection and exhausted solitude often occasioned by the death of someone near, and it feels less like a collection of scenes than a series of living portraits (group and otherwise) in which we observe dialogue occur: two skate heads walking into deep background, girls cracking wise on a forest wander. Not to mention the loud/soft drama of Jenny’s blow-up at her tattoo artist deadbeat dad. That logy mood, abetted by tight sound design, is intensified by many characters being in or fresh out of adolescence. Porterfield regularly sharpens focus on individual characters, asking questions from offscreen (as a nebulous interrogator). These candid moments, though the technique might sound affected on paper, bring out the characters’ self-possession, a weight of presence also conferred by strains of cello.

What the director has described as “an interest in the world first and storytelling second” can also feel hands-off and flat. The movie, which premiered in slightly different form at last year’s Berlinale, arrives theatrically with perhaps insurmountable praise: “It looks with as much perception and sympathy as it is possible for a film to look,” writes one critic, whereas another advocate calls Jeremy Saulnier’s cinematography as “essential” as Coutard’s for Godard (which, depending what you mean by “essential,” overlooks any of several similar slow-cinema gazes lensed globally in the past decade). There are also the bugaboos of “respect” for characters and the moniker of “regional cinema,” both problematic terms used by the filmmaker himself and echoed by critics. In any case, the critical enthusiasm comes as an ironic counterpoint to the objects of the praise, who at times so poignantly, like many of us in grief (or, as one character expresses, in its apparent absence), know not what to think.

Nicolas Rapold

Putty Hill opens Friday, February 18 at Cinema Village in New York before touring nationally. For more details, click here.

Tricky Dick

02.16.11

Left: Dick Fontaine, Who Is Sonny Rollins?, 1968, still from a color video, 30 minutes. Sonny Rollins. Right: Dick Fontaine, Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?, 1968, still from a color video, 60 minutes. Norman Mailer.


A TERRIFIC MOMENT occurs halfway through Norman Mailer’s nonfiction novel The Armies of the Night (1968) when, writing in the third person, Mailer interrupts an account of his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon to introduce an important bit of information: All along, including during his subsequent arrest, he was being followed by a camera crew. At the head of that crew was Dick Fontaine—a ubiquitous figure in the 1960s—whose resulting Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? (1968) possesses a journalistic immediacy and experimental drive manifest throughout the bulk of the director’s pioneering documentary work.

Fontaine pushed to the fore of Britain’s post-Grierson documentary scene through Granada TV’s World in Action, an investigative news program for which he wrote and directed controversial episodes on Tory politician Alec Douglas-Home (1963) and the Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964). While working in television Fontaine became increasingly concerned with the effects of media, and he sought new forms to explore the intersections of art and his own profession. “Temporary Person Passing Through” (1965), the debut episode of the BBC series One Pair of Eyes, examines the paradoxes of post-colonial India via the self-reflexive impressions of journalist James Cameron; “Heroes” (1967), for ABC’s unconventional New Tempo series, sends up the celebrity industry with a collage of publicity-age image-gods and image worshippers; “Who Is Sonny Rollins?” (1968), also for New Tempo, creates a moving profile of the jazz legend, then on spiritual break from the pressures of fame and practicing solos on the Williamsburg Bridge.

In Will the Real Norman Mailer . . . Fontaine becomes a satellite to the fragmented personality of the writer who is here no longer simply a man of letters but a veritable media figure, expending his energy on antiwar theater, contentious television appearances, and his own gonzo improvised filmmaking ventures. (Norman Mailer Vs. Fun City, USA [1970] later documents the author’s run for mayor of New York City.) In Mailer, the director found a subject through whom politics, art, and media all strangely and powerfully converged. And as part of the collectivist production company Tattooist International, Fontaine captured his own creative and personal contradictions in kaleidoscopic cine-memoir Double Pisces, Scorpio Rising (1970).

But his greatest passion has been African-American culture, as documented in Beat This! A Hip Hop History (1983), the graffiti defense Bombin’ (1988), and I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1980), a James Baldwin–led odyssey through the torn and struggling cities that gave birth to the civil rights movement. Whether charting the sympathetic contact between South Bronx spray-paint stars and marginalized Thatcher-era British youth or listening to the unfinished dreams of the men and women who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Fontaine’s real subject seems to be the founding principle of the documentary genre: communication.

Michael Joshua Rowin

“Minding the Gap: The Films of Dick Fontaine” runs February 17–24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.

Urban Sprawl

02.14.11

Left: Jo Sung-Hee, End of Animal, 2010, still from a color film, 114 minutes. Right: Théo Court, Ocaso, 2010, still from a color film, 80 minutes.


THE THEME of the 2011 International Film Festival Rotterdam was “XL”—as in the Roman numerals for “forty,” referring to this venerable event’s ruby anniversary and to the forty additional venues, from museums and galleries to a makeshift Chinese-style tavern–cum–performance space, that the festival occupied this year, stretching far beyond its downtown hub and across this port city’s busy Maas River. Sprawl, for better or worse, is one of the Rotterdam festival’s signature traits. Sandwiched between Sundance and Berlin, and more adventurous than either, it has for some time now been a multitentacled beast, adopting a progressive stance on multiple fronts: an interest in new voices (as showcased in the Tiger competition for first- and second-time directors); an allegiance to the cinema of the developing world (nurtured through the affiliated Hubert Bals Fund); and a commitment to historical retrospectives, experimental films, and installation work.

The habitual abundance, even more pronounced in this supersize edition, can translate to a frustrating lack of focus—but there are worse problems for a major film festival to have. Many of the designated sidebars would be significant stand-alone events in other contexts. A series of “Red Westerns,” ranging from Kuleshovian adventures to Eastern Bloc potboilers, attested to the malleable iconography of the most American of genres (some of the movies are showing at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of a Soviet action films program this month). The “Water Tiger Inn” survey took in several decades of martial-arts classics, including all-time greats of the genre by King Hu, Chang Cheh, and Tsui Hark. The career tribute to Nathaniel Dorsky seemed to inspire—as befits the filmmaker’s silent, rapturous tone poems—an awe bordering on reverence: Many a newly converted fanboy-disciple could be seen clutching a signed copy of Dorsky’s artistic manifesto Devotional Cinema (2003). Agustí Villaronga, another “filmmaker in focus,” turned out to be an intriguing forgotten man (internationally, at least) of post-Franco Spanish cinema. The high point of his checkered career arguably remains his first feature, In a Glass Cage (1987), an anatomy of the dark heart of fascism and a queasy masterpiece of political, psychological, and erotic horror, in which a onetime Nazi death camp doctor, entombed in an iron lung, becomes ensnared in the sadomasochistic revenge plot of a former victim.

Many of the filmmakers who got their big breaks in Rotterdam remain part of the large extended family. In honor of the fortieth edition, a one-off “Return of the Tiger” section encompassed new work from past winners such as Hong Sang-Soo, Pablo Trapero, and Kelly Reichardt. Two of last year’s winners, Mexico’s Pedro González-Rubio and the US’s Ben Russell, were back as a participants in the IFFR’s co-production market CineMart (González-Rubio found European partners for his new project, Tree Shade; Russell, who’s collaborating with another gifted experimental filmmaker, Ben Rivers, won a special mention from the CineMart jury). The Cinema Reloaded initiative enlisted a pair of Rotterdam regulars to make crowd-funded digital shorts: Ho Yuhang’s feisty doc essay No One Is Illegal considers the rabid anti-Malaysian sentiment among Indonesian nationalist fanatics, while Alexis Dos Santos finds a winning match of form and content in the split-screened, sweetly glitchy Chatroulette romance Random Strangers. Another Rotterdam alum, Raya Martin, contributed one of the festival’s clear highlights in the form of a trailer for the Hubert Bals Fund: a gorgeous, hand-painted, minute-long sensory cascade whose pleasures only intensified with repeat encounters.

The jury, which included Lucrecia Martel, Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu director Andrei Ujica, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo (who performed at the closing ceremony), conferred the three Tiger awards to Eternity, a delicate story of love and the afterlife by Thai first-timer Sivaroj Kongsakul; Finisterrae, an insidery spoof of art-film pretensions by Sergio Caballero, beautifully shot by Eduard Grau (cinematographer of Albert Serra’s Honor de Cavalleria, one of the films Finisterrae lampoons); and Park Joo-Bong’s The Journals of Musan, a sober and finely etched character study–cum–social drama, about a North Korean defector adrift in Seoul. (Park was an assistant director for Lee Chang-Dong, and he learned his lessons well.)

Musan, which also won the critics’ prize, was part of a robust showing from young Korean filmmakers. A fellow Tiger competitor, Yoon Sung-Hyun’s Bleak Night, which probes the aftermath of a teen suicide, is likewise notable for its tenderness and maturity (especially given that it was the director’s graduation project at the Korean Film Academy). An even more impressive debut, Jo Sung-Hee’s restrained, sustained End of Animal is a postapocalyptic parable with a killer premise (pregnant woman shares cab with mysterious stranger who knows her past and forecasts her future), poised between religious allegory and monster movie, with shades of Ballard, Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, and Lost before the series succumbed to overwrought explanations.

Rotterdam often welcomes the too-small-for-Sundance American indie, and there was a regionalist bent to many of this year’s US dramas, which included Matthew Petock’s A Little Closer, about the respective plights of a single mother and her two boys in rural Virginia; R. Alverson’s New Jerusalem, also set in Virginia, about an Irish-American war vet and his evangelical co-worker (played by Will Oldham, modifying his Old Joy gadfly); Malcolm Murray’s slacker romance Bad Posture, set among gun-toting Albuquerque petty criminals—all a touch predictable, and perhaps modest to a fault, but sensitively observed and each promising in its own way. (Michael Tully’s Septien, one of the few Amerindies that did play Sundance, smartly undercuts the regional-realist trend with a wry riff on the eccentric, trash-humping Deep South.) But the most interesting film by an American director was perhaps the very un-American Headshots, a first feature by Texas-born German resident Lawrence Tooley, a flinty portrait of a Berlin woman’s psychic distress that gets at the empty heart of modern urban disaffection.

Two of the best films would have made for a fine double bill. From Spanish director José Maria de Orbe, Aita is a memory piece about a building (in the Basque village of Astigarraga) and the passage of time, as seen in the shifting light and felt in every dusty nook of this centuries-old mansion. When the sun is up, schoolchildren roam and workers talk shop; the ghosts come out at night, as flickering celluloid projections on the walls. Similarly set in a crumbling house, surrounded by woods and shrouded in fog, Théo Court’s Ocaso follows a Chilean caretaker on his solitary daily routines—it’s a Lisandro Alonso story in an Aleksandr Sokurov world, an atmospheric immersion in a fading twilight zone that alights on startling passages of beauty and quietude. In this maximalist festival, it was the moments of plangent minimalism that made the strongest impression.

Dennis Lim

The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 26–February 6, 2011.

Pablo Trapero, Carancho, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes.


TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS are the number one cause of death in people under thirty-five in Argentina, eight thousand fatalities a year. Profiting from these “incidents” are ambulance-chasing lawyers who sue insurance companies on behalf of the victims and keep most of the spoils for themselves. In Carancho (the title means “bird of prey”), Pablo Trapero crosses the social realism of his early and strongest movies—Crane World (1999) and El bonaerense (2002)—with the brutality and slightly steamy sex of film noir. Most directors settle for the stylistics of noir—venetian blind shadows and oblique camera angles. Trapero goes for the substance: institutional corruption that robs everyone it touches of their moral compass.

The picture opens with Hector Sosa (Argentine star Ricardo Darín) getting beat up for reasons that become clear only much later. As a result, he goes though the film with the dazed though antagonistic demeanor of the prototypical noir protagonist. While he waits for his license to practice law to be reinstated (we never find out why he lost it in the first place, which reinforces our sense of the utter confusion and corruption of the justice system), Sosa works for a scummy supposed community service organization, chasing down accident victims and convincing them or their grieving relatives to sign on the dotted line. Disgusted with his part in this lucrative scam, he tries to quit but discovers that the only way he’ll escape “The Foundation” is if its thugs go too far and kill him instead of just roughing him up.

Acting on tips from EMS workers and hospital higher-ups (not to mention the police, who also get a piece of the action), Sosa is usually first to arrive on accident scenes. He repeatedly encounters a young doctor, Luján (Martina Gusman), fresh from the provinces, who works with an ambulance service and moonlights in the ER. Self-medicating to stay awake and to numb herself to the horrors of her jobs, Luján has become a full-fledged addict. The two begin an affair, but Luján breaks it off when she discovers that Sosa is trying to make amends to the clients that his boss ripped off by staging accidents that will give them another chance to make a claim. Luján doesn’t only have moral qualms about the scheme; she also realizes that there’s no way to limit the injuries that the fraudulent victims will sustain. Nevertheless, she can’t entirely close the door on Sosa.

Shooting at night on highways and suburban streets, in rundown corners of Buenos Aires and in ERs so poorly equipped they might as well be in a third-world country, Trapero has created a claustrophobic, sordid landscape that takes its color scheme from the brownish-red of dried blood and the yellow-green of hospital neon. The body count is high, the deadly denouement inevitable.

Trapero is a force, as both a director and a producer, in Argentina’s exploding though financially strapped film industry. His most obvious attempt at commercial filmmaking (car crashes, blood, sex, drugs, ER drama), Carancho is probably too downbeat to make money at the box office and too realistically brutal to please art-house audiences. (The remake rights have already been bought by Hollywood, with Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart [2009] slated to direct.) I prefer Trapero’s more humanist films—the two mentioned above plus Rolling Family (2004)—but I can’t imagine a less exploitive, more disturbing depiction of institutionalized corruption than the one he has made.

Amy Taubin

Carancho opens Friday, February 11, at the Angelika Film Center in New York. For more details, click here.

Aaron Katz, Cold Weather, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 97 minutes. Gail and Doug (Trieste Kelly Dunn and Cris Lankenau).


AARON KATZ’S DANCE PARTY, USA (2006) is in the top ten of my Best High School Movies list. His third and latest, Cold Weather has one of the subtlest last lines ever, and when I can find where I buried that particular list, I’ll add it in. “There’s something at the beginning of this,” says Doug, our protagonist, to his sister Gail, who’s sitting next to him in the front seat of his car. There’s barely time for the words to register before the screen goes black. Doug is referring specifically to an old mixtape that he’s trying to play, but he could also be talking about their relationship, how what happened that day renewed their childhood bond and also concluded it, and that what’s ahead is the beginning of their life as connected but independent adults.

Katz is one of American indie cinema’s most talented lyric poets. Delicate and utterly beguiling, his movies coalesce around fleeting images and bits of casual conversation layered with meaning. Cold Weather, like Dance Party, USA and Quiet City (2007), is a movie about how people who are not quite sure of who they are find themselves through the process of making connections—however tentative and oblique—with others. Cold Weather adds a new element. About a third of the way through, it turns into a rescue-the-maiden thriller, a genre movie as it could be playfully imagined and enacted by devotees of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

And of Sherlock Holmes—the stories, not the movies. Doug (Cris Lankenau) has dropped out of college just short of getting a degree in forensic science and is crashing in the Portland, Oregon, apartment of his slightly older sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). He gets a job in an ice factory, where he strikes up a friendship with Carlos (Raúl Castillo) and spends the rest of his time lounging on the couch reading the Sherlock Holmes books that were his boyhood favorites and that he also lends to Carlos. Just when the movie threatens to become slackerish, Doug’s former girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) arrives in town. Carlos asks her on a date (with Doug’s permission) and when she doesn’t show, he’s convinced there’s been foul play. Ridiculous, says Doug, until he glimpses a guy in a pickup truck watching the motel room from which Rachel has vanished and seizes the opportunity to become the Holmes of his imagination for real.

In the hands of a lesser writer-director, the Holmes/forensic science backstory would feel forced and unbelievable, since Doug seems constitutionally averse to questioning anything—neither himself nor the outside world. But Katz, aided enormously by Lankenau’s subtle performance, lays a trail of psychological clues—in effect turning the viewer into a detective—so that one realizes that Doug idolizes Holmes precisely because his own curiosity has been somehow stunted; he probably studied forensic science in the hope of overcoming his inhibition, but it’s been to no avail, until the changes in his circumstances and pure chance free him to act on his desires and intuition.

Katz is a triple threat, his editing every bit as important as his writing and directing for his movies’ sense of place, shifting tonalities, and emotional vibrations. He’s a master of abrupt cuts and big temporal ellipses. The best joke in Cold Weather is the shot that’s omitted from the final caper, but how can you laugh out loud at something that’s not on the screen? Eight minutes into the movie, having set a brisk pace—despite the absence of action—by clipping scenes short of where they seem to be leading, he allows a single shot to run a full sixty seconds. Doug has persuaded Gail to play hooky from work and drive to the ocean with him. We see them in long shot sitting at a picnic table, too far away to hear what, if anything, they might be saying. The sky is overcast, as it almost always is in this very Portland movie, and its variegated gray-blue is only slightly distinct from the variegated blue-gray of the surf. (Cold Weather was exquisitely lensed by Andrew Reed, Katz’s regular cinematographer, using the RED camera.) A gull is circling them, trying to pick off the remains of their sandwiches. Toward the end of the shot, a bit of Keegan DeWitt’s bouncy but ever so faintly ominous score kicks in and carries over to the next shot of the sibs as they drive back to the city. With those sixty seconds, Katz allows us to enter the world of the movie of our own volition. By the time Doug says his last line, “There’s something in the beginning of this,” I want to go back again to rediscover exactly what that something is.

Amy Taubin

Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather opens Friday, February 4, at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.

Left: František Vláčil, Adelheid, 1969, still frmo a color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Right: František Vláčil, Marketa Lazarová, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 163 minutes.


“THE FANTASTIC WORLD OF FRANTIŠEK VLÁČIL” is one of the most important retrospectives to hit New York in recent memory. Although Vláčil’s first feature, The White Dove (1960), drew considerable attention, and his medieval epic Marketa Lazarová (1967) was voted the best Czech film of all time in a poll of European critics, his work is virtually unknown in the US. Pressed to name the notable figures of the Czech New Wave, few critics would cite Vláčil among such better-known directors as Jiří Menzel, Milos Forman, Jan Němec, and Ivan Passer. Arguably, Vláčil approached life under communism less directly than his peers, preferring symbolic narratives set in the Middle Ages or in the more recent past under Nazi occupation. Nonetheless, his films reflect the complex cultural and linguistic tapestry of the country’s politically divided history and identity.

Both lyrical and naturalistic, his work is infused with moral conviction, viewing present evils as manifestations of eternal conflicts. In The Valley of the Bees (1967), the protagonist struggles between carnal desire for his stepmother and the severe code of the Teutonic religious order in which he was forcibly raised. A rigorous formal structure enforces the fatalism of the parable, its bleak landscapes and stark black-and-white cinematography evoking Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957). In Adelheid (1969), set at the end of World War II, a Czech officer is assigned to reclaim an estate of a Nazi collaborator sentenced to death. Later, he learns that Adelheid, his servant woman, is the collaborator’s daughter. Though neither speaks the other’s language, their interactions assume an affecting depth that makes the denouement all the more tragic. As in Shadows of a Hot Summer (1977), about a farm family held hostage by Ukrainian partisans at the end of World War II, Vláčil addresses big themes via narrowly focused, even domestic situations. In both films, he shuns the theatrical in favor of a more terrifying low-key realism.

Vláčil had a remarkable gift for creating child characters and directing the actors who played them. Among the must-sees in the series that demonstrate this magnificently are the aforementioned White Dove and Sirius (1974), which won the Grand Prix at the Tehran Children’s Film Festival. Though both films concern a relationship between a child and an animal, they avoid sentimentality. Each child makes a tough decision that wrenches him from a sheltered view of the world. In Sirius a boy’s father is seized by the Germans for rebellious activities. To avoid surrendering his dog Sirius, named after the Dog Star, to be trained to hunt and attack men like his father, the son opts to have the animal shot by the local forester. An afterword affirming the perpetual “return” of the Dog Star suggests that freedom, sacrificed or lost under tyranny, is always reborn. Unsurprisingly, communist officials suspected that Vláčil’s allegory, as well as the stern resolve of his young protagonist, were hardly restricted to the Nazi past.

Belying its debut status, The White Dove manifests a visual eloquence that testifies to Vláčil’s ability to narrate in purely filmic terms. Paralleling its tale of a quasi-crippled boy afraid of the outside world with that of a young girl who awaits the homing pigeon of the title, the film cuts between an apartment building in Prague and an island in the Baltics. Though the boy’s slingshot appears to have killed the bird, he is inspired by an artist neighbor to nurse it back to life, a miraculous rebirth that prefigures his own. When he frees the bird to fly home, the single feather it sheds prompts him to leave his apartment in order to retrieve it. With minimal dialogue and a consistently inventive framing and shooting style, the film achieves a poetic realism worthy of Dovzhenko.

The series includes Tomáš Hejtmánek’s Sentiment (2003), an uncanny portrait of Vláčil in the guise of a documentary, in which the director is played by Jiří Kodet, an actor of comparable gravity, thinly masked by old world charm and wit. More than one viewer will believe they have encountered Vláčil himself.

Tony Pipolo

“The Fantastic World of František Vláčil” runs February 2–10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. For more details, click here.