Vol 1, No 2, 5 July 1999
K I N O E Y E :|
Misty Melancholy with a Bovine
Sisyphus: Karel Kachyna's Krava
Andrew J Horton
The last time Karel Kachyna's Krava was screened in London, it was shown a couple of weeks after Ivan Vojnar's Cesta pustym lesem (Click here for full and separate Kinoeye review). The proximity of the two showings was appropriate, as they have a number of features in common: they are both set in forest regions; they both portray provincial poverty; and they are both punctuated by contemplative shots of mist hanging over conifers in lush valleys. More significantly, however, they are both, in their own ways, dedicated to portraying the unrelenting struggle of life.
Although less than impressed by his mother's whoring, Adam is so devoted to her that he sells their cow to buy morphine to numb the pain of her dying days. Having sold his livelihood, Adam now has to struggle to earn his living. He takes a job at a quarry, but has designs to return to the simple life of honest work on the land.
Each evening, as he returns to his hilltop house, he lugs up soil and rocks to terrace off the steep hillside into farmable land. His efforts win him the admiration of Rosa, an attractive young girl, not adverse to using her body to help her get along in life. At first, Adam rejects her, still shaken by the loose ways of his mother, but Rosa perseveres, and they fall in love.
Both of them now work at the quarry and haul soil and rocks back up the hill. Although their love is idyllic, their lives are not. As their fortunes wax and wane, they are repeatedly forced through a cycle of saving up to buy a cow and then having to sell it to avert another catastrophe.
Despite seemingly gaining nothing from this way of life, Adam continues to act it out, hauling his stones up like some sort of Sisyphus of the Bohemian forest. All the while, he hardly seems to react to his fate, expressing his despair only once, in a drunken rage. Although we only see a short section of his life, the film's final words assure us that he will live out this meaningless cycle of back-breaking hardship for the rest of his days.
Kachyna's film is far more traditionally structured than Vojnar's. Its storyline is essentially linear and Adam is the clear protagonist. Furthermore, Adam's silences are scripted and form a logical part of the story, whereas, for Vojnar, silence is poetic space in which to explore areas of feeling that are incidental to the thrust of the film.
Nevertheless, Krava relies heavily on an inner poetry to drive it, and makes no concessions to the Hollywood school of filmmaking. The mechanics of this poetry are very different from Vojnar's and hark back to more traditional forms of storytelling, such as fairy-tales and allegorical tales. Kachyna forces us to think about his hero, not just to watch him. The deep level on which the film's symbolism functions certainly gives the viewer much to ponder; the film lingers long after the final credits have passed by. Like all good allegories, you can never quite grasp all of it, and a single viewing of the film is really not enough to give you the feeling that you've come to grips with it completely.
As well as drawing on older narrative traditions, Krava is also firmly rooted in the Czech cinematic tradition. Although a serious film, Kachyna, like many a Czech director, cannot resist the temptation to try and make us laugh. The film is certainly lighter and more easy-going on the audience than Vojnar's stern poetics.
Kachyna rose to fame with the liberal interlude in Czech film-making that came with the Prague Spring. It is good not just to see him still making films, but it is even more encouraging to see that he is still in top form. Krava pleasantly contrasts with the disappointing works produced by some of the other Czech directors who have seen their careers revived in the 1990s.
Andrew J Horton, 5 July 1999
Since this article first appeared, more web material has appeared on Kachyna in English. Particularly notable are the articles of the Journal of Film and Audiovisual Media. Two pertinent ones are: an overview of Kachyna's career and an overview of Czech film since 1989 .
If you can't make it to Karlovy Vary, you can buy Krava on video. But it ain't cheap! Order HERE.
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