Forget about the picture postcards you've seen of Prague the city of the Renaissance and Baroque, palaces, and churches and a hundred golden spires: there is a whole different city out there to be explored among the pre-fabricated apartment blocks, edge of the town discos, concrete passageways and concrete bridges. A city of night with a constant stream of cars leaving for elsewhere: all form the backdrop for Benjamin Tucek's 2002 underground hit "Girlie" ("Devcatko" in Czech).
The film maps a few days in the life of a seventeen year-old girl looking to find her place in a cool and disinterested world, trying desperately to gain a sense of self. Without a father, in an exhausted suburbia that is emotionally barren, the lead role of Ema is played by the extraordinary Dorota Nvotova, who surprised just about everyone when she hit the screen. As the film's creators describe: Ema's diversions are flights of fancy and looking for the perfect boyfriend - a character with softer nuances and a creative core. Here director Benjamin Tucek discusses how he conceived of the character of Ema, then found his actress for the role.
"Actually I kind of based the role partially on notes written in a secret diary, belonging to my seventeen-year-old half-sister - that was part of the character - about half the film. But, the other half was based more on my own experience, a kind of coming to terms with the past. The character of Ema is a mix between fiction and reality, played by Dorota Nvotova. How did we find the actress? Well, it wasn't easy. We went as far away as Sweden to do casting but of course there was a problem with the language. Then, by chance while we were in Slovakia we visited one casting studio that had Dorota's picture on the wall - she'd been in one film when she was fourteen, Martin Sulik's Orbis Pictus, but that was about it. As soon as we sat down with Dorota it was obvious she was the perfect for the part."
Nvotova brings a beautiful mix of youthful spontaneity to Ema, waif-like fragility mixed with harder-edged grimaces and at times a surprising no-nonsense sensibility. But always in her character there is an underlying playfulness which she uses to act out her dreams. The film's key image is one where the character doesn't even look like herself at all but like some kind of incognito star - a raven-haired dime-store Gwyneth Paltrow who hides herself behind massive sunglasses and a shawl as she spies on a young man who catches her fancy.
"It's true that for me her dressing-up - this kind of camouflage has to do with a kind of inability to take full responsibility for her life."
Putting on and peeling off different layers of "skin" is one of the film's central themes as Ema by turn searches for or escapes who she really is. Trying on this, trying on that. Cutting her hair, cutting her hair again, watching herself in the mirror and other reflective surfaces. But her behaviour is never trite. Moments of stylised joy are all too easily grounded in reality, all too soon washed away in a suburban wasteland where none of the adults in her life - including her mother - are able to hold meaningful relationships for long. Ema wanders over roads and bridges: a "child" of modern Prague The cars flow, the city fails to sleep, living its own raw but strangely beautiful existence. An existence Benjamin Tucek says he and his cameraman worked hard to try and depict.
"We speculated endlessly over the film's look, my cameraman and I, since we both grew up in Prague's south side (Jizni Mesto) where the film takes place. So we knew the area really well. Still, it was our intention not to shoot a realistic film, but a non-realistic one, which depicted areas nicer than they were, reflecting the heroine's inner life. Only by eventually peeling back the layers did we want to confront the viewer. Out of the attractive, let's say "designy" elements, comes a sudden stark emptiness."
In this version of Prague it seems that ultimately only the truly jaded survive, such as the brilliantly conceived character of Istvan, the taxi-driver "without a taxi" played against type by one of the country's most famous actors Ondrej Vetchy (of Deep Blue World). Unshaven, a man of few words, sunglasses at night, Vetchy's Istvan is insomnia and numbness personified. A man who plays video games at the 24-hour arcade for lack of anything better to do; or for the improbable chance someone might call. Strangely, it is this man that Ema conceives a perfect match for her mother, who hits the bars out of loneliness every night.
But, it is not to be: director Benjamin Tucek spring-coils his story with an unwinding fatalistic causality that can only lead to failure - and loss. In the whiteness of dawn his heroine Ema will survive though it is unclear for how long. Will she be forced to make the transition from waif to woman at last? Benjamin Tucek leaves it up to his audience to decide.
In the market of Czech cinema films like Devcatko are a rare thing: after two years the film is not new but no doubt remains to be discovered - and enjoyed - by many foreign language audiences. And it may also just well outlast many far-less serious projects these days pandering all too quickly to "typically Czech" comic sensibilities - it seems that every other project these days plays the same card with the just right, just cute enough characters and a requisite number of "memorable" one-liners to ensure box-office success. But that is hardly daring cinema. It will now be interesting to see how Devcatko compares to Mr Tucek's next project which he co-wrote but didn't direct. The film opens in one day's time in the Czech Republic and is titled "Mistri" or "The Champions".
"The film was written by three of us and directed by my friend Marek Najbrt. It's about alcoholism, self-illusion and hockey in the Czech Republic today. Actually in the border regions, the Sudetenland. Actually, it's not really about hockey, but much more about relationships, relationships in a small town. The ice hockey championships only form a backdrop for certain fanaticism".
Benjamin Tucek: the filmmaker as a young man. A name to watch even if they don't always get his picture right. How so? One internet site mistakenly posted the picture of Istvan - the jaded taxi driver without a cab - as the director himself. When Benjamin Tucek flew to the San Francisco film festival it was a man with sunglasses, an eternal five o'clock shadow, and endless insomnia they expected to arrive. Not a modest and unassuming filmmaker who quietly stood in the corner before someone realised their mistake.
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