Addiction and Redemption: "Eva Nova"

in 40th Toronto International Film Festival

by Alissa Simon

An aging, alcoholic actress whose life and career are on the skids seeks a third act in the small but heart-felt Slovak drama Eva Nova. Director-writer-producer Marko Skop, a noted documentary maker marking his fiction debut, creates an unglamorous but full-bodied role for veteran actress Emilia Vasaryova and directs with sensitivity and an eye for patterns of behavior. Although some will find this tale about selfishness, compassion and second chances too downbeat, those with the patience to stick around will witness a glimmer of the redeeming power of love. 

As the film opens, 62-year-old, fallen on hard times Eva (Vasaryova) leaves her third stint in rehab determined to change her life and to reconcile with her only child, Dodo (Milan Ondrik), whom she essentially abandoned long ago to the care of her older sister Manka (Zofia Martisova) in their provincial birthplace. Back then, more self-involved than maternal, Eva preferred to pursue her career and enjoy her lovers.        

Now, there’s too much bad blood and bad behavior standing in the way of Eva’s late-life goals. For starters, neither Manka nor Dodo’s wife Helena (Aniko Vargova) is pleased to see her, and furious Dodo literally shoves her out the door.            

Back in Bratislava, down but not defeated, Eva faces further ignominy. She needs money, but no one will cast her or book her for readings after her previous unreliability. Her only chance to perform is in front of Alzheimer’s’ cases at a senior citizens’ home, so she’s forced to take a job stocking shelves at the local grocery, clad in a ridiculous, brightly colored uniform.            

When a possible breakthrough – an invitation to a party full of industry movers and shakers – turns into a full-blown disaster. Skop follows Eva’s series of wrong choices with empathy and observes events through her eyes. Meanwhile, back in the village, Dodo fails to rise to challenges of his own. Although brought up by Manka, he has inherited his mother’s selfishness and love for drink.            

Skop says his inspiration for the film was an interview he did many years ago with the French actress Annie Giradot. Although bitter, alcoholic and past her prime, she still rose to the occasion and played a version of herself, much as the character of Eva must continually gear herself up to do in order to continue with her difficult life.              

Exploring themes of humanity, dignity, addiction and redemption, Skop’s carefully constructed screenplay is never exploitative. It gradually reveals the secrets and traumas of Eva’s life… Why she abandoned her son. Why she started drinking. Who she was and what went wrong before she became what we see now.        

On the visual level, Skop and cinematographer Jan Melis make Eva the focus of every scene. They use close-ups of her face to promote audience identification and also to reveal the nuances of the performances she puts on for others. We see her carefully select her wardrobe and continually check herself in the mirror, as if rehearsing. When a former acting colleague recognizes her at the grocery store, she transforms into a plucky woman fallen on hard times.              

Vasaryova, known as the “First Lady of Slovak Theater and Film,” brilliantly rises to the challenge of the part, unafraid to meet the camera’s probing gaze or to appear tired, ugly, mean or drunk. During the film’s final moments, looking vulnerable in a swimsuit, she slips into a backyard pool to join her morose son. At that point, viewers wholeheartedly wish her a moment of grace.          

Photos and posters from earlier in Vasaryova’s own career support the naturalistic-looking craft credits.      

Alissa Simon