A Film a Week - The Word / Slovo

 previously published on Cineuropa

Events from the past have a tendency to come back a long time after they originally happened, to haunt the next generations, or at least demanding to be remembered. In the context of the Czech Republic (and Slovakia), that event is the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which happened in 1968, and its aftermath. Every family probably has a story about 1968, and Beata Parkanová has just told us one in her second feature, The Word, which has premiered in the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s competition.

Václav Vojíř (Martin Finger, a veteran of Czech television who also collaborated with Parkanová on her 2018 debut feature, Moments) is a man of noble principles. He is a strict and meticulous law expert and a highly respected notary in an unnamed Czech town, as well as being an authority figure of sorts for its inhabitants. But his expertise, clean record and upstanding principles are not enough to secure his position, since he is not a member of the ruling Communist Party, and there is even a record of him having voted against the communists in 1946. The Party, represented by agents who visit his office to put pressure on him, states that Vaclav owes his entire career to it and its benevolence towards his “transgressions”.

Václav is, naturally, worried about his future, since he is living in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, but his wife, Vera (Gabriela Mikulková, mostly active on television), stands firmly behind him, sacrificing her comfort to be the support he needs and to take care of their two children. Their friends advise them to “do the smart thing” and make a deal with the Party, because it is actually a minor nuisance, but Václav cannot betray his principles. He awaits his “punishment”, which could be having his licence revoked, being transferred somewhere else, or even being demoted to a menial job that he does not feel suited to doing – and the waiting could prove to be more like torture than the “sentence” itself.

Parkanová divides her film into long scenes: these dialogue-driven, somewhat static sequences are filmed in either longer, mid-to-long-distance shots or in a series of reverse shots, so The Word does not exactly give us a “cinematic” feeling all the time. The sense of watching a stage play is further amplified by the acting, which features heightened expressiveness and a slightly declamatory tone in the line delivery. Short intermezzos between the scenes, containing still photographs of the actors in their characters’ roles, provide a bit of relief from the heavy, gloomy atmosphere.

On a visual level, The Word looks a bit like a TV movie due to its unfiltered imagery drenched in natural colours and its slightly austere production design, in which the items of the present day are removed, but are not replaced with props from the period the film is portraying. However, for her part, Parkanová occasionally demonstrates that she has some interesting directing solutions, and cinematographer Tomáš Juriček is similarly resourceful with some of his attractive, ingeniously composed long shots.

In the end, The Word feels like a film made with a sincere motivation to tell the story. The trouble is that these stories have been told before, and so it could struggle to find an audience outside its specific region.

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