The Art of Theatre

in 44th Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Lisa Kristin Strindberg

First I would like to mention the film debut of Russian playwright/director Vasiliy Sigarev, “Wolfy” (Volcok), not because theatre is used in the film, but because this film is based on the director’s own play of the same name. The theatrical background is apparent in his strong and welcome theatrical use of images in the film, especially when depicting the living room/bedroom as a three-dimensional theatrical stage as the daughter is sitting at the side, watching her sick mother. The brooding story is beautifully directed and very well played by the actors. And the theme is a daughter’s unconditional (but alas to me unlikely) love of an extremely selfish and hateful mother of evil tongue and actions.

The three other films in the main competition that I will discuss here have actors playing theatre as main themes of the story, using the theatrical role-character as a vehicle of the psychological development of the protagonists.

The young avant-garde theatre director, Irina (Kasia Smutniak), in “Freedom” (Tutta colpa di Giuda) by writer/director Davide Ferrario, is attempting to stage an Easter Passion play with inmates of the local detention center.

In the American film, “Cold Souls”, by French writer/director Sophie Barthes, the protagonist Paul Giamatti is drawn into an existential crisis by his role in an upcoming production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.

And in the Danish film “Applause” by writer Anders F. August/director Martin P. Zandvliet, interacting scenes from a realistic staging of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”, they document the psychological effect of soul-wrecking roles on the life of actress Thea (Paprika Steen).

Being a character playing a theatrical-role gives opportunity to express psychological challenges along with a quest for identity and self-understanding. In addition there is a political or culture-political message in the Italian film “Freedom”. In this film the writer-director Davide Ferrario questions the very base of western culture, the biblical story of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

None of the convicts (convicts in real life) wants to play Judas, which is understandable, and plausible, considering the conditions. And so, the director in the film, Irina, has to find another solution to this Passion-story. If there is no Judas, there will be no conviction and then no death for Jesus. In the play in this film, Jesus walks off the cross and chooses life for himself, and so for us Jesus’ death is not a sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven.

In both the Danish film, “Applause”, and the American “Cold Souls”, the protagonist’s acting puts them under extreme stress. The realistic “Applause” shows the self-destructing drinking Thea does to carry her through the torments her work puts her through. This has been her way to ease the stress from playing difficult characters on stage. She wants and needs the applause, the confirmation of herself through her theatrical work. The misuse of alcohol may have comforted her soul, but it has also ruined her marriage. Her former husband now has the total custody of their small boys. After treatment she wants the two boys back but, still wanting to work, she realizes she is no good for them and drops the aim. The ending of this story has for me a vague correspondence to Ibsen’s Nora in “A Doll’s House”, of course with a totally different reason. Nora realizes she is not qualified to raise her children, and leaves them behind with her husband as she goes out into the world to find out who she is. Thea realizes that she is not capable of being a stable mother if she continues to put her soul in the excessive stress of her acting.

The American film, “Cold Souls”, is a surrealistic story. It uses theatrical work to explain the unbearable torments protagonist Paul goes through in the film, (playing “himself”, an actor), when trying to give life to the title-role of “Uncle Vanja” by Chekov.

After seeing an advert in “The New Yorker” magazine, angst-ridden Paul places himself in the care of a mysterious company which guarantees him relief by extracting and temporarily freezing his soul.

The film depicts three “versions” of the actor Paul: One, an anxious actor unable to play the role well; Two, the actor Paul without his soul, not being able to give any life to his uncle Vanja; Then the third version and the tongue-in-cheek point of the film, where the actor Paul, with the loaned soul of a Russian female poet, is stunningly talented in his portrayal of uncle Vanja.

Edited by Steven Yates