Dir. Petr Zelenka. Czech Republic. 88mins.
The opening film at this year's Karlovy Vary festival was another musical -mockumentary by Petr Zelenka, who has already scored in this genre on home ground, both with a television series (Padlock 1982-2007) and the 1996 feature Happy End (Mnaga). Inspired by a concert by singer-songwriter Jaromir Nohavica and his band Czechomor, who are renowned for their approach to folk music, Zelenka has here imagined an exploration of the relationship between them. Immensely enjoyed by the festival's home audience, who are obviously familiar with the material and the performers, the film has also received an enthusiastic welcome in the Czech Republic, where it rolled out in March, registering 115,000 admissions and taking 10.9m Czech Crowns (around $363,000) from a limited 12-screen opening. Overseas it will have a harder time prevailing on non-Czech speaking audiences, for who the local appeal is likely to be lost.
The feature begins with Dutch film-maker Jan Holman, who is preparing a documentary about a Czech Alcholics Anonymous centre. There, he stumbles upon the famous Nohavica, who, instead of reforming his addiction, offers some persuasive arguments in favour of alcoholism. Fascinated by his personality, Holman sticks with his new acquaintance, trying to discover what makes him tick, his relationship with fellow-songwriter Karel Pilhal, the effect of age on both of them and their peculiar ties with the band Czechomor.
Zelenka's story may be fictional but he presents it as a documentary. Nohavica, Pilhal and the Czechomor contingent join in with the fun full-heartedly, talking, observing, reflecting or remaining stubbornly silent depending on the film's whims. To spruce up proceedings, Zelenka throws in Jaz Coleman, the former frontman of UK rock band Killing Joke. Now a symphony composer who behaves like Alice Cooper on a day off, Coleman tempts Czechomor with an offer to put a full orchestra behind them (which he did in real life).
Year Of The Devil has no real plot to speak of, carried along as it is by a series of observations, gags, jokes and evident winks. They refer to anything from the difficulty of making choices and the 'attraction of the devil' (incarnated in all the temptations man has to resist) to the complexity of human relationships and the impossibility of ever exposing their true nature. Throughout the film Zelenka also touches on artistic concerns such as what is really needed to make art work and the perfidious conduct of the media vultures pilfering materials from the hands of innocents. Shot with a handheld camera, Zelenka's film exudes spontaneous inspiration and relies on the insouciance of the performers who are perfectly at home with the alternative personae they are asked to interpret.
Nohavica's talent both as a writer and performer shine through, but English subtitles for all - rather than only some - of the songs he contributes would have helped. Zelenka's humour varies between deadpan visual jokes, sophisticated remarks sneaked into the proceedings and outright slapstick. Doubtless the film must have been lots of fun to make by all involved, but there is not enough pruning of Zelenka's inordinate fondness for his material - and it sometimes prevents the true hilarity of Year Of The Devil being fully transmitted to the audience.
Prod cos: Negativ SRO, Czech TV Studio Brno, Falcon
Int'l sales: Cinepol Int'l
Prod: Pavel Strand
Cinematography: Miro Gabor
Ed: David Charap
Prod des: Milan Byczek
Music: Jaromir Nohavica, Czechomor
Cast: Jaromir Nohavica, Karel Pilhal, Jaz Coleman, Jan Prent, the rest of Czechomor