JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Karamazovs (Director/Writer: Petr Zelenka) - January 22, 2009
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The Karamazovs

Karamazovi

4 4
100 min.

Reviewed at the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival
The devil's in the steel mill

Those with a taste for life on the dark side will devour Petr Zelenka’s The Karamazovs with evil gusto.

The set-up involves a large European arts grant resulting in bringing a Czech theatre troupe to Poland as part of the Closer to Life Festival. The members will put on a theatrical version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s infamous novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

The wide variety of acts (including a Pas de deux and magical puppet show)will be staged in and around a steel factory whose long history has included owners from Germany and Russia before the present Indian steel baron took over the helm of sweaty commerce.

The premises are in such poor state of repair that hard hats must be worn by the performers to comply with the local occupational safety standards. Setting the tone for the famed Russian tale to come, the regulation is duly noted and summarily ignored, but everyone’s safety has, at least, been addressed.

Tragically, the seven-year-old son of a long-time mill employee (the steelworks continues to operate during the shows) fell off a below-code conveyance and remains fighting for his life while his father (Andrzej Mastalerz) is drawn siren-like to the dress rehearsal, refusing to attend his child as he prefers to watch the various fictional scenes—which clearly resonate with his life—unfold before his riveted eyes.

As writer/adapter, Zelenka has also seen fit to add a slight dramatic complication by having stage character Dimitri (David Novotný) wrestle with a double booking (his first film can only be completed with a forgotten night-shoot). He attempts to slip back to Prague for the 8:00 p.m. call but is foiled at every turn by his nemesis director (Roman Luknár). In the end, this conceit adds little to the sum total even if an additional source for angst and revenge suits his stage character’s persona to a tee.

The storied plot unfolds in the wide-open venue, the likes of which those confined to a real theatre can only envy. Using the sprawling workplace and environs, the scenes unfold with extra-visual depth that is at one with the exceptional skills of the players (not least of which are Radek Holub’s portrayal of the epileptic semi-son, Smerdyakov and the gripping characterization of his soulless father by Ivan Trojan).

The Rozbitel Orchestra renders Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s score (largely piano and strings) with aplomb—Marek Szpakiewicz’s cello contributions are especially fine—even as the music remembers Bartók and Russian folk songs (the cocktail piano bits also can’t fail to bring a smile).

As this life-imitates-art-imitates-death production reaches its difficult end, the original material seems stronger than ever. The tale of My Four Sons—debts owed and competing for the same women (Michaela Badinková and Lenka Krobotová)—remains as compelling and timeless as ever. Even the cinematic treatment (Alexander Surkala proves to be a first-class cinematographer) can’t overshadow the novelist’s masterful intent. JWR

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