Vol 0, No 10
30 November 1998
Slovakia Discovered (Part II)
Vlado Balco's Rivers of Babylon
Andrew James Horton
Those who enjoyed Peter Pistanek's best-selling book Rivers of Babylon will have been eagerly awaiting Vlado Balco's recently released screen version which has been in the pipeline since 1991. The film has surprised fans of the original, who tend to dislike the darker mood, the moral message and the political implications of what producer and co-scriptwriter Marian Urban has described as Slovakia's first underground film.
Rivers of Babylon (1998) is set in the autumn of 1989 "somewhere in Central Europe," although there is no attempt to hide the fact that this "somewhere" is in fact Bratislava. Other films set in this period, such as Jan Sverak's Oscar-winning Kolja (Kolya, 1996), have emphasised the idyllic beauty of Central Europe at this time and bathed it in warm late-summer light. Rivers of Babylon, by contrast, is largely shot in down-beat suburban locations with a cool greyness to the palette. All glamour is strictly of the tackiest kind, as epitomised by peroxide-blonde prostitutes and the favourite song of the film's anti-hero - Boney M's "Rivers of Babylon."
The anti-hero in question is Racz and the film charts his rise from boiler-stoker to business tycoon, assisted in his progress by equal measures of extreme violence and charisma. He uses his position in a hotel boiler room to extort money and sexual favours from hotel guests and staff by controlling their heating. From this he rises to become de facto director of the hotel from which it is a short leap to forming a burgeoning business empire. In his meteoric rise he rewards the faithful handsomely and brutally eliminates his opponents.
Another source of discomfort for those who like the book, might be the ending. Whereas the book ended happily with a wedding, the film has an empty, nagging sort of resolution with Video giving us a bleak neo-Buddhist message to finish what he could not do - destroy Racz and his evil empire.
As with so many Slovak films these days, Rivers of Babylon was delayed because of finance problems. The film originally had a grant from the Slovak Ministry of Culture, but when HZDS took control of the country, Vladimir Meciar's new man at the ministry Dusan Slobodnik withdrew the money intended for this film about a corrupt and immoral man who gives employment to his cronies to extend his grip on an empire based on power. I wonder why.
Marian Urban discussed these problems of finance in detail, first at the cinema and then afterwards in a near-by pub, where the producer got into a heated debate with the Slovak ambassador to Britain Igor Slobodnik - son of Dusan. (Incidently, Slobodnik Jr had to endure a further series of unpleasant references to his father when he attended London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies' colloquium on Slovak culture organised as part of the festival.)
All this intrigue makes the film much more rewarding. It has also helped narrow the film's audience. Urban reported that Czech audiences did not find some of the scenes as funny as Slovak audiences did because the situations did not correspond to the current reality in the Czech Republic.
Rivers of Babylon is a truly original film. For one thing it rejects the ruralism prevalent in Slovak cinematography, but it is even more astounding in its message. The return to subversive political allegory as a cinematic form of expression makes it unique, not just in Slovakia but in Central and Eastern Europe generally.
Andrew James Horton, 30 November 1998
Click here to visit the Rivers of Babylon website.
Click here to read an interview with Peter Pistanek by Andrew James Horton.
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