Sunday, November 23, 2008

Czech Film Festival

Somerville, Mass - What a lucky coincidence. Here I am, working on the Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe. And in the local movies theaters, there is a flurry of films coming out of the Czech Republic. In the past month, I have seen two of them: I Served the King of England and Beauty in Trouble. And just to round things out, I watched The Unbearable Lightness of Being while riding my bicycle trainer on a cold day this week. Together these three movies pretty well cover the last century of Czech history...
I Served the King of England is based on a novel by the celebrated author Bohomil Hrabel. Oddly enough, I have had this book for years. I started to read it at least once, but didn't get very far. After seeing the film, I wonder why not.
The protagonist is Jan Dite, a waiter in pre-war Prague. His defining characteristics are his diminuitive size and his good luck, which lands him lucrative jobs and lovely ladies. As Dite moves through the ranks - from back waiter in a local pub to maitre d' at the prestigious Hotel Paris - Czechoslovakia moves through history. First, the German residents are ostracized; then fortunes are reversed when the Nazis arrive; eventually the Nazis lose the war and the Soviets move in.
Czechoslovakia does not actually fight in WWII, but rather allows the Nazi occupation with varying degrees of resistance. The scene is repeated under the Soviets. All the while, our hero's life is inextricably tied to the fate of his country - even as he seems to be able (or willing) to do little to alter it.
Dite does achieve his dream of becoming rich and owning his own hotel. But under the communists, it doesn't last long. That seems to be a theme: your time on top will not last for long.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being picks up where the first film leaves off. This most famous of Czech novels, by emigre writer Milan Kundera, was made into movie in 1988. Disclaimer: the film is a US production, but it stars mostlly European actors (the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis) and it was filmed in France. It's very cool in that it uses real archival footage from the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.
This is another novel that I have owned for years but never read (though I have read many of Kundera's other books). Only this past month, I dove into the Unbearable Lightness, and was so inspired as to follow up with the film.
The story centers on Tomas, an accomplished doctor and womanizer who lives in Prague in 1968, during the period of political liberalization known as Prague Spring. He falls in love and marries the vulnerable but devoted Tereza, but he refuses to give up his polyamorous ways. The film examines the complexity of relationships, not only between Tomas and Tereza, but also between these characters and Tomas' lovers. But all of these very personal exchanges take place against the backdrop of the historical events that unfold.
In August 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. All of the previous political reforms are undone, as the new puppet government reintroduces restrictions on press and travel. In the film, Tomas and Tereza emigrate to Switzerland to escape the crack-down that will follow. But Tereza is unhappy in her adopted home, and she returns to Prague. Tomas follows, even though it means they both must endure increasing persection - becoming targets of political blackmail and eventually losing their jobs.
The two main characters are essentially apolitical: they are concerned with their personal affairs and their professional aspirations. At one point, Tomas states bluntly and boldly "I don't care about politics." But they are thoughtful people, considered members of the intelligentsia. And they inadvertently and inevitably get drawn into the nasty politics that pervades the country.
Finally, Beauty in Trouble takes place in postcommunist Prague. It is not based on a book, but rather a poem by . But it is a delightful and insightful drama about a family trying to find their way in the midst of the tumultous transition.
Marcela and Jarda are a rough-around-the-edges couple, working hard to make ends meet and create some kind of stability for their two children. They get by with extra income from Jarda's chop shop. It seems like their relationship is constantly on the edge of self-destruction, with Marcela withstanding a lot of abuse from Jarda. But their sexual attraction trumps all bad feelings, and they always seem to kiss and make up - quite literally.
When Jarda is arrested for stealing a car, Marcela finally takes her cue, leaving her husband and moving in with her mother and her mother's boyfriend. The victim of the car theft is Evzen, a wealthy Czech emigre who has returned from Italy to settle his dead mother's estate. Evzen is clearly taken with his romantic image of his ancestral home, reading Kundera and showering the local people with kindness and empathy. He even takes pity on Marcela, lending her money and offering her to stay in his empty house. One thing leads to another... romance ensues...
Marcela is torn between the passion she still feels for Jarda and the peace she feels with Evzen - between preserving the family for her children, and creating a newer, healthier family for her children.
The characters in this film are brilliant and funny, each representing a different element of contemporary Czech society. The older generation is clearly the hardest hit by the collapse of communism: Jarda's mother joins a hardcore evangelical church (which seems about right, since her old religion - communism - has been completely discredited); Marcela's mother is cynical and single-minded, constantly encouraging her daughter to get her hands on Evzen's money. Both are delusional about their relationships and their country.
At the other end of the scale, the children are impressionable but adaptable. They move freely back and forth between their grandmother's cramped apartment and Evzen's Italian villa. They learn to swim; they learn to speak Italian; they are the next generation - the future of Czech.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bond for President

Somerville, Mass - I am not normally a fan of action-adventure films, but I have to admit that I have a thing for the new James Bond, played by Daniel Craig. It's not just his constant cool under pressure or his killer bod, it's also his uncanny resemblance to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
James Bond and Vladimir Putin have more in common than steely blue eyes and well-defined pecs. They also share an unwaivering commitment to duty, putting their lives on the line for their countries. And of course, they are both trained killers. (Before Putin was president, he rose through the ranks of the KGB. He is famous for having a black belt in judo, amongst other deadly skills, no doubt.)
This comparison has made me realize something about why Putin is so popular in Russia... wouldn't you want James Bond to be your president?
There was recently a story in the news about Putin's visit to a nature preserve where scientists are tracking and studying Siberian tigers. When one of the tigers suddenly broke free from its restraint, Putin sprang to action and shot it with a tranquilizer gun before it could attack or harm anyone. Everyone at the park was impressed with his shooting skills and grateful for his quick-wittedness. Sure, it's not often that Putin has to call on his skills... but he's still got it!
The new Bond film Quantum of Solace is of interest for another reason. Alongside Daniel Craig, the film stars supermodel Olga Kurylenko. Apparently, communists in Russia are aghast at the "moral and intellectual betrayal" by this Ukrainian beauty.
"In the name of all communists we appeal to you, Olga Kurylenko, wanton daughter of unclean Ukraine and deserter of the Slavic world. The Soviet Union educated you, cared for you, and brought you up for free, but no one suspected that you would commit this act of intellectual and moral betrayal," read the statement by the St Petersburg communist party.
The statement goes on to reprimand Kurylenko for playing alongside James Bond, a "killer of hundreds of Soviet people and their allies." Sometimes I wonder if the communists are resigned to making people laugh, since they are otherwise irrelevent in international politics. I swear, you can't make this stuff up!
"Your peers are engaged in struggles against NATO and you lounge around on the Cote d'Azur. How could you desert your homeland in its moment of need?"
I say, who can blame her? Olga probably feels that teaming up with James Bond is the next best thing to teaming up with Putin himself...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Communist Dracula Pageant

Somerville, Mass - As soon as I saw the playbill for this production at the American Repertory Theatre (ART), I knew I had to see it. The image of the Romanian dictactor Nicolae Ceausescu smiles out from the poster, but somebody has drawn Dracula fangs to enhance his mug.

You never know what to expect from the ART, which tends toward unconventional characters, minimalist sets and surreal storylines. So who better to tackle this rather absurd episode in Romanian history? And - since I am currently working on Lonely Planet's guide to Eastern Europe - what better diversion for me on a Friday night?

In short, the play is about the 1989 revolution in Romania, which brought about the downfall of the worst of the communist-era dictators in Eastern Europe: Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. It's hard to follow unless you know the history... thankfully, the program provides the necessary background information.

The inspiration for the play was a real-life event that took place in 1976, when Romania celebrated the 500th anniversary of the death of Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, best known as Dracula. This 15th-century Prince of Wallachia (a province of present-day Romania) was the namesake and inspiration for the vampire character in Bram Stoker's novel. He was renowned for his cruelty and ruthlessness.

But apparently he is also Romanian national hero. Nicolae Ceausescu perceived himself to be a sort of heir to Dracula's historical legacy, which was celebrated in 1976 with as much pomp and circumstance as the Romanians could muster. The concept of a "communist dracula pageant" seems more than a little ridiculous... and it is. Which is why it is the perfect starting-point for the production.

One theme of the play is the constant juxtaposition between fantasy and reality. The Ceausescus were masters at creating their own reality, starting with their revisionist history about good old Vlad Tepes. A few other examples that are referenced in the play:

  • Nicolae Ceausescu was a terrible shot, but he frequently went hunting with his security guards, who would drug the bears so Ceausescu could shoot them.
  • Elena Ceausescu was educated only up to fourth grade, but she considered herself to be an accomplished scientist, founding laboratories and signing off on other scientists' work.
  • Nicoale Ceausescu held titles such as the "Genius of the Carpathians" and the "Shining Light of the Romanian People".

In December 1989, in the northern town of Timisoara, a small group of people protested against the eviction of a Hungarian priest. Troops fired on the protestors, killing about 200 people, which fuelled more demonstrations. In response, the government organized a "spontaneous" rally in support of Ceausescu - another manufactured reality, but this one was debunked. The dictator's speech was not well received and he was not able to calm the crowd. Skirmishes broke out, and the rally eventually turned into protest riots.

The whole thing was televized. The Ceausescus fled.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were arrested the next day. Still living in fantasy land, they refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court and turned down the services of a defense attorney. Not that it would have done them any good. The trial lasted less than an hour; they were found guilty of genocide and executed. You won't get a more surreal storyline than that.

The Communist Dracula Pageant tells the tale using all of the props promised in the subtitle - hallucinations, phosphorescence and bears - which only accentuates the surrealism. The historical events fly by without clear comprehension of what's going on, capturing the chaos and confusion of the uprising.

It is a startling reminder that nobody knew how these events would play out in 1989. Even in Romania itself, it was not clear if this was a revolution or just an absurdist play... Indeed, Ann Washburn's play questions - as many Romanians do - if the revolution wasn't yet another fabrication - a clever cover for a coup d'etat.

It's been almost 20 years since these fateful events occurred in Eastern Europe - Romania being the last of the Eastern bloc regimes to fall. For me, this play was a wonderful, welcome reminder about why I chose to study this wacky part of the world. Where truth is stranger than fiction...

Photos courtesy of the ART.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Vote for Change from Around the World

Somerville, Mass - Today I am receiving congratulatory messages from friends in all corners of the globe, including Costa Rica, Russia and Dubai. The world is celebrating this election right along with us.

Since I spent the first half of this year on the road, I had a different perspective on the presidential election - the foreign perspective. It was striking to me that everywhere I went - Belize, Italy and Russia - people were excited about the possibility of President Obama. During the course of the campaign he has advocated for diplomacy instead of coercion, and the world appreciates this new approach.

Foreign Policy printed a roundup of some excerpts from the foreign press:

From Germany: "Obama is America's offer of reconciliation after all those years of premeditated political provocation, of military action not backed by international law, of America's claim to be entitled to military pre-emptive strikes." - Spiegel Online

From the UK: "Yesterday’s results were head-spinning stuff… The country regarded loftily by many Europeans as hopelessly racist and irredeemably right wing has voted to be ruled by a black man, at the head of a party committed to economic redistribution and a foreign policy rooted in peaceful diplomatic engagement."  - Times of London

From France: "The World Waits For Obama's 'Change': The victory of Barack Obama arouses hope and attention in the four corners of the globe, even in countries usually hostile to Washington." - Le Figaro

From Israel: "Former Congressman Mikva said that 'Barack will be the first Jewish president in the US... He has a yiddeshe nishama,' [a 'Jewish soul'] Mikva said. 'He is committed to Israel and its security concerns and understands that democratization does not happen by force but by example.' " - The Jerusalem Post 

From Kenya: "President Kibaki: 'This is a momentous day not only in the history of the United States of America, but also for us in Kenya. The victory of Senator Obama is our own victory because of his roots here in Kenya. As a country, we are full of pride for his success.'" - The Daily Nation  

I love these last two... It's no surprise that Kenya would claim Obama as one of their own. But to hear this from an Israeli is unexpected, considering that the presidential candidate was lambasted by the "pro-Israel" contingent in the US.

From Ireland: Nothing can beat the claim by Irish folk singers: "O'Leary, O'Rily, O'Hara, O'Harra, There's no one as Irish as Barack Obama."

You know this went over well in Boston... Vote Irish! Vote O'Bama!