Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:39 am 
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1980's meltdown of a secret police sociopath

Radim Spacek's Walking Too Fast has been described as a "political thriller," but its agenda is different. It has an abstract, absurdist quality that undercuts the suspense and excitement necessary to a thriller. Its mood is deliberately alienating, unlike Von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, where we are drawn into the most minute details. There are similarities between the two films. Here too there is an intellectual under investigation, Tomás (Martin Finger), a dissident writer, a big, long-haired man with a nice house full of books, a wife, and a mistress, Klara (Kristina Farkasova), a confident and pretty ginger-haired factory-worker. There's not much about what he writes, though, or who his friends are. But he's repeatedly menaced and beaten, his adultery revealed to his wife, who kicks him out. He's offered the opportunity to leave the country with his family, which he initially refuses on moral grounds. There's little about the actual process of surveillance that is so central to Von Donnersmarck's film.

This movie seeks primarily to show how the system of repression (it's set in 1982) destroys the people who enforce it, and it does that through a single compelling but repellent character, Antonín (Ondrej Malý), a star operative of the secret police (StB). He falls for the writer's girlfriend Klara, a useless passion that seems to lead to his ultimate meltdown, but most of his time is occupied with senseless violence and menace. Malý is a little, wiry, ferret-like man who resembles an Eastern European Matthieu Amalric. He has Amalric's face with the life and the handsomeness drained from it. He has Amalric's manic intensity but none of his warmth and vulnerability. Instead there's something genuinely scary about him. The film's "suspense" is watching to see what he will do next. Malý, who's in nearly every scene, is the chief reason for watching this movie, which may mean more to Czechs otherwise than to anybody else. They can read worlds into it. Outsiders will miss a convincing story, some excuses for what is going on, for how we get from point A to point B. The movie's structure is solely the structure of Antonín's downward spiral, spurred by discontent with everything, growing physical and psychological problems and his obsession with Klara. As one reviewer, Jason Pirodsky, put it, Antonín is "a Travis Bickle-like sociopath." But instead of being an alienated loner, he's part of the state machine, and he's running off the rails.

Walking Too Fast (whose original title Pouta means "The Ties That Bind") systematically robs the secret police's intelligence-gathering process of all logic. When he pulls in Tomás to an empty, low-ceilinged interrogation room, Antonín says, "Do you know why you're here?" but he doesn't, and Antonín doesn't tell him. We see Antonín and a group of his cohorts getting drunk together -- another stage for unnerving, mad behavior -- and it shows they are afraid of him but don't admire him. Eventually he beats up a lot of people, singlehanded, onscreen. But he also has panic attacks, and after burning one man with a cigarette he burns himself too. He carries a plastic bag to breathe into to ease the panic attacks. At least one of these attacks occurs in the middle of beating someone. No doubt about it, Antonín isn't having a good time.

Walking Too Fast has some of the qualities of a film noir or a whodonit, though its loser protagonist brings his troubles on himself and earns no shred of sympathy from the audience. However this is where Malý's cold intensity as an actor comes in. He makes Antonín an inexplicable force of nature, a man possessed by an energy that's destroying him.

Though the beatings are repeated without the sense of a buildup to anything, there are good scenes in Walking Too Fast. The ones where Antonín forces his wife to move out and uselessly corners Klara and proposes an affair are particularly memorable. There's good work from all the cast. Lukas Latinak is fine as Antonín's mellower, tricky Slovak cohort and so is Lubos Vesely as a timid intellectual forced to play informant. I particularly liked the Eighties-ish electronic score by indie musician Tomas Vtipil, which sets up the uneasy mood of the scenes and provides an unsettling jauntiness to the closing credits. The cinematography of Jaromir Kacer is impeccable. I just wish the writer, Ondrej Stindl, had put a dash more humanity and three-dimensionality into the script. Writing ultimately makes or breaks a film and here a little more story logic would have expanded the potential audience.

Pouta took home a raft of honors at the Czech version of the Oscars. It has appeared in half a dozen international festivals and opened theatrically in the Czech Republic in February 2010, but it sold fewer than 17,000 tickets. It may have a better life as a DVD when viewers can take breaks from its 142-minute length. Seen and reviewed as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 2011.

SFIFF Screenings
Fri, Apr 22 8:45 / Kabuki
Sun, Apr 24 3:00 / Kabuki
Mon, May 2 8:30 / PFA

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