Study In Brown

in 52nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Fatih Özgüven

Czech director Vaclav Kadrnka’s first feature film Eighty Letters (Osmdesat dopisu) opens with a scene in which a young boy anxiously wakes up and realizes that his mother is not at home. This is a situation akin to the one experienced by Marcel Proust’s young narrator at the beginning of A la Recherche de Temps Perdu, but adolescent neurosis is not the order of the day here. On the contrary, the scene depicts the tense life of a mother and son in communist Czechoslovakia in 1987. They try to obtain permission to leave the country to join the father, who has emigrated to the UK. The film is the account of what they endure at the hands of a specialized bureaucracy on a daily basis.

More than this, the film is the triumph of a certain color scheme (browns, light greens, grays, etc.) which dominates and defines the mood of the film. The ennui and ‘Kafka-esque’ quality of the day-to-day existence of mother and son permeate the film via the brown of the mother’s coat and the speckled, brownish coat of the family’s friendly cat. On the other hand, the diagonals which define most of the compositions serve to underline the suspense of comings and goings. There is almost no frame which does not convey implicit suspense through the use of a murky brown space crossed by a diagonal line, either architecturally or pictorially. In a remarkable achievement, the film reaches the spare, modernist beauty of a Rodchenko or Malevich painting. For a film which deals with a bureaucratic order based on certain modern ideals of order and ‘justice’, the minimalist aesthetic is an excellent mood-setter.

Eighty Letters is almost silent, with a minimum of dialogue. We hear the mother’s heels purposefully rapping against the pavement, with the son breathlessly following her: this is a duo on a mission. The bulk of the soundtrack is taken up by letters recited by the mother; they are written to the absent father, and are full of self-contained expressions of longing. The film never makes clear whether young Vacek and his mother are going to reach the father, who is presented as an Idea, a father in absentia. But through his absence and blurred image (he appears in a few photos), the figure of the father makes the mother and son more real, more tangible, and even heroic in their efforts to overcome a drab, ‘brown’, oppressive reality.

This is a film about dedication; a mother and son’s dedication to each other — not the kind found in a ‘psychological’ film about some Freudian entanglement, but a recognition of the need and want to support each other, an intense commitment if there ever was one. Commitment to a dream, to each other: indeed, the film is the flipside of another famous albeit disastrous mother-and-son relationship, the one in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Eighty Letters could easily be retitled ‘Ode to a Dream.’