Debuting Czech director Vladimir Michalek brings countryman Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel “Amerika” to the screen with care and imagination. But as has previously been the problem in rendering the Czech literary master’s schematic nightmarish vision on film, from Orson Welles'”The Trial” to Steven Soderbergh’s fictional thriller “Kafka,” the cold existential terrain of his work makes for a rather distancing cinematic experience. Best bet is scholastic and pubcaster airings where pic can serve as a perfectly respectable intro to the term “Kafkaesque.”
Derived from a production by the Czech Republic’s Prague Ypsilon Theatre, screenplay by director Michalek and cinematographer Martin Duba takes a fairly straightforward approach to the material, charting the journey of Karel Rossmann (Martin Dejdar) from Europe to the mythical land of the title. Just as Kafka wrote the piece from his imagination and not from a firsthand look at the Promised Land, there’s no attempt to treat the story realistically, and the film boasts a lovely art-deco-inspired theatrical look with painted skyline backdrops and mattes of overpowering urban landscapes.
Karel’s journey begins with his delivery to the good graces of his industrialist Uncle Jacob (Jiri Labus), but after a lengthy period of testing, characterized by typically Kafkaesque paranoia-inducing incidents, Karel falls into a trap set by the sexually aggressive daughter (Katerina Kozakova) of one of his father’s associates.
Cast out as undeserving of a place in his uncle’s empire, Karel falls in with alcoholic tramp Topic (Jiri Schmitzer) and angelic barmaid Klara (Jjarka Rytychova), who serves the heady brews that lighten their dark world of poverty and hopelessness.
After Topic goads him into aquarrel, Karel, thinking he has killed the tramp, is forced to go underground under the protection of Green (Pavel Novy), a toady old graybeard, and Mack (Tomas Vorel), a tough young thug. His benefactors turn out to be emissaries of destruction, and as in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction ,” the protagonist becomes the prey of these two darkly perverse and sadistic monsters. Ultimately, however, there is a brighter lining than one might expect after all the angst that precedes the payoff.
Tech credits for this stylish, well-crafted pic only somewhat redeem its overall staginess and stodginess.