Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 15
1 January 1999

Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora
  Available to rent
K I N O E Y E:
Going Down and Out in Prague and Prerov
Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora

Andrew J Horton

Prague has changed rather a lot over the past few years. Many might think for the worse, as the city is now a major centre for drug abuse and prostitution. As capitalism has kicked in, the provincial push and the urban pull has been too great for many youngsters to resist. Whilst there may be fortunes to be made, the new arrivals are rarely the ones to make them and the metropolis is far more likely to strip them of their dignity than nurture them as human beings. Such stories are rich pickings for a film director, and Wiktor Grodecki is one director who, with his film Mandragora (1997), has been tempted by the age-old theme of the corrupting city.

Marek is pretty much your average Czech kid. He hates school, he hates his hometown, Prerov, and he's not overly-enamoured with his father, who, as fathers are prone to, thinks Marek should be hard at his homework while he himself is off down the pub. Marek can't face it any longer and, after dramatically stealing a leather jacket, hops on a train to Prague. He soon runs out of money and even his jacket gets stolen from him. He only has one asset left to fall back on: he's cute - very cute.

Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora
Marek: One of life's perpetual losers
Marek gets used and abused by a series of pimps and clients. He bears the beatings and the humiliation and becomes something of an expert at his newly-found profession and is able to slickly chat up middle-aged tourists in search of male sex with an under-aged Central European. As he gets involved in the job, his values slowly become compromised. At first he refuses to drink, but after a while alcohol becomes an inevitable part of the job; drugs follow soon after. Marek is perpetually on the verge of true success, and every time it turns rotten. When the glamour is stripped away he is left alone sitting on his hotel room bed surrounded by hard-core porn, sniffing speed off a copy of the Czech gardening magazine Zahrada - a sure sign of the depths to which he has sunk.

Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora
Twelve-year-olds negotiate with a client
Meanwhile, back at home, Marek's father tries to get to grips with the fact that his son sells his body to buy drugs. He goes off in search of the errant son in the hope of persuading him to come home and live a normal life. Despite their paths nearly crossing several times, they never find each other and Marek, shot full of heroin and suffering from AIDS, collapses dead within centimetres of his dad. (Oh, the irony, the bitter irony.)

Mandragora (named after a plant which grows under the gallows fed by the sperm of dead men) pushes back boundaries in what films have shown on screen, certainly in the context of the Czech Republic. Whilst Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997), another work on the sex industry with a moral to it, showed us Mark Wahlberg's truly superlative member, Mandragora gives us a good glimpse of the rather more modest proportions of young actor Miroslav Caslavka posing in his birthday suit on a rotating pedestal. The film also refuses to hold back on the dialogue, with the rent boys discussing their work in graphic detail. You can't accuse Grodecki of lack of research in these matters: the film was based on real stories which he encountered in the making of two documentaries shot over a period of three years:Andele nejsou andele (Angels but not Angels, 1994) and Telo bez duse (Body without Soul, 1996).

Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora
The statuesque Marek on a pedastal for an admirer
Whereas Boogie Nights was an artful and subtle expose of the vacuousness of promiscuity and porn, Mandragora is something of a crime against cinematography. Although, the acting is assured and the lighting and sets are all well done, Grodecki shows himself to have little control over more abstract cinematic qualities. For a start, he lays on the pathos as thick as he can throughout and this confines his ability to create contrasting moods in the film. At 130 minutes long, the film is far too large in scale to sustain such an emotionally one-dimensional approach and the inevitable effect is boredom. Grodecki does try to compensate for this lack of variety by presenting us with sordid insights into the young boy's life. In the end, this makes Mandragora a bad "mockumentary" rather than an artform. And it shows - the dialogue in particular, is horribly stilted and exists only to try and shock us. Moreover, Grodecki feels compelled to make all his moral dilemmas simple and he leaves no room for starting debate about his subject matter above the level of "Oh my God, isn't child prostitution awful." This suggests that Grodecki is more of an artisan than an artist and is happier in the more neutral and descriptive medium of documentary than the more engaging medium of film fiction.

Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora
  Another sad chat-up
Not surprisingly, if you stick enough sex in a film people will want to watch it and sure enough, after its pioneering efforts in exposing male flesh on screen, Mandragora won the audience award at the Palm Springs Film Festival. I'd be very interested to meet some of the people who voted for this film. My strong suspicion is that they are not the same arthouse crowd who loved Boogie Nights. The film does seem to have a certain following among those to whom a full frontal of Miroslav Caslavka is a rather exciting prospect and not all those who are writing about the film are genuinely outraged by the Marek's story.

However, for all the pushing back of boundaries, Mandragora is a highly middle-class, middle-of-the-road film. Despite the explicit nudity, and graphic conversation about sex, this is the sort of film that every parent would want to show their teenage children. Its moral is that no matter how drunk your father gets and shouts at you and no matter how much of waster he really is, you're best off sticking at home because they love you really and you love them too, you just don't realise it. Now, that really is sick and perverted. Perhaps, it's no surprise that the five awards which first launched Mandragora onto the festival circuit came from one of the most smugly middle-class cities in Europe - Geneva.

Boogie Nights might have been totally against the sex industry, but it never left you with any doubt that running away from such an awful mother was the right thing for its hero to do under the circumstances. Grodecki's failure to make a film about the prostitution of teenage boys, which takes up the point of view of the real victims of this tragedy shows how little understanding he has of the human suffering he witnessed in this sad trade.

Andrew J Horton, 1 January 1999 (republished 22 November 1999)

Further Surfing

To get hold of the film on video (without subtitles), go to The Czech Video Centre. If you want a copy with English subtitles, you may have to wait a little bit as there seems to be, at the time of writing, trouble with getting distribution rights. I have my doubts about the integrity of the company which seems to want to distribute the English-language version of this film, since Mandragora is advertised alongside its "Naturism Collection". Find it yourself if you're that desperate.

As with any Czech film, there are the usual run of reading options, all in Czech:

Production credits at Czech Movie Heaven...
A review from Mlada Fronta Dnes.
A review from Cinema
A review from Kinofil
A review from Studna
A review from Promluv

In addition there are some general discussions of sex in films. Kinofil's feature on the issue is little more than a list helpfully supplied with lots of pictures. If you want something more intellectual, then try the Czech academic journal Biograph, which has a rather more weighty treatment of the theme.

Finally, if you really enjoy bad Czech films, you might want to participate in the "Worst Films" discussion group. All postings are in Czech.



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