"The Karamazov Brothers": Dostoevsky For All Seasons By Jan Foll

in 43rd Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Jan Foll

A lot of novels, plays and films can be classified as philosophical thrillers. It is the case of Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”, the plays of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and some Ingmar Bergman films. In the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky there are thriller themes as well as thoughts on good, evil and the search for belief. The main theme of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov” is the investigation of a patricide. However, conflicts between freedom and wildness, desire for property, the spiritual world, the noble sacrament and rationalist skepticism arise from the characters of the killed lecher and his sons.

The key criminal plot is already interesting. The real perpetrator blames the brother who was only playing with such idea in his head. Due to wrongly interpreted evidence the brother who was seemingly closest to committing a crime is convicted. The questions of responsibility for evil and adequate punishment are not the only ones raised in The Karamazov Brothers.

Director Petr Zelenka (born 1967), whose Year of the Devil (Rok dábla) won the Crystal Globe at the KVIFF in 2002, once again proves what a clever designer he is. He shot the Prague’s Dejvice Theatre production as a rehearsal in Cracow steelworks during a multicultural festival. The dramatic spice of Dostoevsky’s thoughts contrasts with the actors’ every-day routine.

In an unknown environment the group of actors from Prague initiates absurd jokes. There are pictures of the Pope and naked women, a reminder of Lech Walesa or a dancing couple and a puppeteer performing in a different venue at the festival function elsewhere. Nevertheless, Zelenka’s film isn’t only about the mentality of actors who seem like self-satisfied exhibitionists on one hand but are highly professional on the other. Zelenka takes into account the historical, cultural and political background of Cracow as well. The city used to be the center of the Polish intellectual elite and the steelworks were built there as an instrument of Stalinist terror.

The old factory, with its machines, dangerous walkways and ominous hooks, is the crude industrial setting to the drama. It is as if noble thoughts of morality and justice were dashing against metal blocks, rusty constructions and the omnipresent dirt. Alexander Surkala, the director of photography, captures these contrasts. The scene is shown as if it were a temple where God has been replaced by human toil. One of the symbolic shots depicts hell as an iron melting pot.

The most significant section of Zelenka’s film brings us to a retired Polish serviceman, who silently watches the show, even though he suffers personal agony because of his son’s injury. His torment corresponds with that expressed by Ivan Karamazov’s doubts about divine justice. Famine, the Bosnia massacres and child soldiers in Africa — quite recent atrocities — can be recalled while watching the performance. In this way, Zelenka’s new film is valuable because it does not placate audiences but provokes them intelligently.