You may know Karlovy Vary from the movies–its Grandhotel Pupp played a starring role in the Bond thriller Casino Royale–but the Czech spa town better known as Carlsbad produces its own film franchise, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. This July 4th the venerable festival raises the curtain on its 43rd sequel.
And the town is ready for its close-up. For eight days, 253 feature films from around the world will be screened amid some of Eastern Europe’s most elegant spa hotels. Once the oases of royalty, these lovingly preserved manses still serve up therapeutic hot springs–a pleasure that, to today’s EU passport-toting Czech, is a reminder of why some homegrown traditions must be protected at all costs.
All the more reason why the West Bohemian outpost two hours from Prague prizes its festival. Drawing thousands of industry types, film buffs and travelers questing for an Old World escape with modern distractions, the annual bash pumps enough krowns into Karlovy Vary’s coffers to support its preservation habit.
Also preening their exteriors every fest are celebrities-Robert De Niro will stardust the opening night tribute gala and Saffron Burrows fronts Amy Redford’s The Guitar-consigning to history’s quaint dustbin Karlovy Vary IFF’s 40 years of alternating with fellow traveler Moscow International Film Festival, until 1993. Again enter the Pupp, which that year joined with the Town of Karlovy Vary and the Ministry of Culture in creating a foundation tasked with producing the festival.
Over the years the KVIFF has emerged as the leading showcase of Eastern European cinema. It has two main jousts: the Official Competition among international premieres, whose grand prize is the Crystal Globe ($20,000), and the celebrated East of the West section, where filmmakers from Europe’s Orient contend for top honors. East of the West marks Karlovy Vary’s strategic niche in the increasingly crammed world festival circuit, mirroring the Czech Republic’s geopolitical perch between Central and Eastern Europe. Of Parents and Children, by Vladimír Michálek, represents the country in this segment.
KVIFF was founded more than 60 years ago to showcase productions of the newly nationalized Czechoslovak film industry, and to this day its homegrown titles command a nurturing hand. “It’s important to have an overview of film production in the domestic environment, and to have the will to help promote it,” said KVIFF program director Eva Zaoralová. “Thanks to their screenings at Karlovy Vary, various Czech films have found their way into competition at other festivals or informative programs, or they’ve been purchased for distribution abroad.”
While the festival prides itself on celebrating quality work regardless of national origin, it does its part for indigenous talent. Explained Zaoralová, “It’s chiefly a case of including a Czech film in the main competition.” Michaela Pavlatova’s Night Owls and Petr Zelenka’s Dostoevsky-inflected The Karamazovs are the Czech submissions vying in the Official Competition; Zelenka’s Year of the Devil snared the Crystal Globe in 2002.
Ten movies grace the Czech Films 2007-2008 program, among which Jan Hřebejk’s relationship dramedy, Teddy Bear, stands out for its tonal departure from the director’s Oscar-nominated WWII remembrance, Divided We Fall. Václav Havel inspired two cinematic ruminations in this non-competitive section, one a documentary by Pavel Koutecký and Miroslav Janek (Citizen Havel) and the other, a seriocomedy by Jiří Vejdělek (Václav). Absurdist doesn’t begin to describe the humor in this unlikely tale of mental disorder and clemency based on a true story involving the artsy Czech leader. And Alice Nellis is back with Little Girl Blue, having swept three Czech Lions (Best Czech Film) in 2007 for her previous foray into domestic tensions.
Also of Czech provenance, Jana Bokova’s Bye Bye Shangai, Helena Trestikova’s Rene and Juraj Lehotsky’s Blind Loves are contenders in the documentary silo. This lastaims to open viewers’ eyes with its four love stories among the sight-impaired, while Bye Bye Shangai profiles several accomplished Czech émigrés and concludes that you really can’t go home again in any meaningful way. The eponymous subject of Rene is the sometime imprisoned, sometime released criminal and writer Rene Plasil, set against a cascade of political events in and beyond the Czech Republic. The documentary competition gins the entries that exceed 30 minutes from those that don’t, and gives both nonfiction formats a reprieve from oblivion.
Conquering obscurity is what a popular sidebar curated by Variety magazine is all about. Now in its eleventh edition, Variety Critics’ Choice: Europe Now! is jointly sponsored withtheEuropean Film Promotion (EFP).Seven of this year’s ten works are debut features, with directors under 40 a recurring theme, inviting the broad observation that young talent is currently amok across Europe.
Some of the marquee-name entries at Karlovy Vary are bunched under the Open Eyes program. This whizz-worthy event reprises 13 films recently screened at Cannes. Gomorra, by Italian Matteo Garrone, took this year’s Grand Prix on the Croisette, and it joins jury prizewinner Il Divo, another spiky political expose by way of Italy, in the Open Eyes lineup. So do Three Monkeys, which nabbed for Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan Best Director award, and Lorna’s Silence, Best Screenplay laureate from the Dardenne brothers. The animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir comes to Open Eyes amid an extra measure of anticipation. Its Israeli director, Ari Folman, bagged KVIFF’s Special Jury Prize in 1996 for the comedy Saint Clara, and he sits on the 43rd KVIFF Grand Jury.
Heading up that Jury is émigré filmmaker Ivan Passer, whose credits range from Czech New Wave classics The Firemen’s Ball and Loves of a Blond (which he co-wrote and assistant directed) to Hollywood release Cutter’s Way (which he directed). Jurors include British actress Brenda Blethyn, US producer Ted Hope, Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, Hungarian-born cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Czech actor/composer/musician Jan P. Muchow.
Beyond the whirr of screenings, parties and panels and the glam of stars and spas, Karlovy Vary once again opens for business-the business of toasting international work while also boosting the Czech and other former Socialist bloc movie industries whose films are as challenging to fund as they are to distribute outside of national borders.