The first Czech winner of Karlovy Vary for 15 years is a reserved and almost silent piece of work
Dir. Václav Kadrnka. Czech Republic/Slovak Republic/Italy. 2017.90 min
Based on classic Czech poem ‘The Little Crusader of Svojano’, Václav Kadrnka’s The Little Crusader comes almost six years after his debut, Eighty Letters. A reserved and almost silent piece of work, Little Crusader is – much like its source material – a poetic affair, heavy with symbolism and an air of the surreal. A vaguely surprising recipient of Karlovy Vary’s Crystal Globe this year, Little Crusader’s status as the first Czech film to win the festival’s main prize in 15 years gives it a notoriety which will serve it well on the festival circuit. But its appeal beyond the festival world seems limited.
For all its technical grace and formal ideas, Little Crusader never really latches on emotionally
Young Jenik (Matouš John) wants to follow in the footsteps of his father Bořek (Karel Roden), a veteran of the Crusades. Running away from home in search of adventure, he disappears into the medieval Czech countryside. Bořek soon goes in pursuit of his erstwhile offspring, encountering strangers on the way while always seemingly just missing out on finding his son. As his search becomes ever more fruitless, Bořek becomes frustrated as the world begins to change around him.
Kadrnka creates a dreamlike world in which little is said and reality – much like Bořek’s son – is just out of reach. The opening shots of Jenik, as he puts on a child’s amour and leaves his small village via a drawbridge, set the film’s stall as naturalism meets a vein of the surreal. Jenik seemingly disappears out of view while languid shots of empty spaces emphasise his absence. As Bořek continues his quest, events transpire as if in a fever dream. Bořek’s later encounters with a theatre troupe – who incur his wrath when he can’t find his son – and a mysterious man further blur the line between narrative reality and a journey of the metaphorical.
Using 4:3, Jan Baset Střítežský’s cinematography emphasises the absence and loneliness in Bořek’s heart. There’s little camera movement and the images are very static within this narrow vista as he remains consistently out of reach from his goal. Bořek is also often framed in the middle of the shot with lots of empty space above his head, as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders. The decision to put everything within a sun-drenched - almost bleached-out - world adds to a sense of the aging and world weariness at the heart of Bořek.
Yet, for all its technical grace and formal ideas, Little Crusader never really latches on emotionally. Much like reality for the characters onscreen, everything feels slightly out of reach and its ideas of isolation and loss of innocence sometimes feel forced. Its atmosphere washes out from the screen and it’s often beautiful to look at, but Kadrnka’s second feature never quite satisfies.
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Producers: Václav Kadrnka, Marko Škop, Ján Meliš,Carlo Cresto-Dina
Screenplay: Václav Kadrnka, Jiří Soukup, Vojtěch Mašek
Cinematography: Jan Baset Střítežský
Editor: Pavel Kolaja
Art Director: Luca Servino
Main cast: Karel Roden, Aleš Bílík, Matouš John