Aquantum leap forward from director Vladimir Michalek’s last film, an unfulfilled adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” “Forgotten Light” is an accomplished interpretation and updating of a ’30s-era Czech novel concerning the political and spiritual struggles of a country priest. Already a critical and box office hit in the Czech Republic, tale’s clerical subject matter and intense examination of Czech communist-era travails, sans star names, will make it unlikely to convert foreign auds. Prayers will be answered in fests and specialty cable programming slots.
In the waning days of the Soviet Empire, the leader of a rural Catholic flock , Father Holy (Boleslav Polivka), is fighting to keep the last-gasp commie leaders from closing the aging cathedral that is the heart of his diocese. Clearly a man of faith – who is willing to perform such low-yield functions as gypsy christenings – he is no pushover for the local party bosses or the corrupt clerics above him, who have been willing to cut sleazy deals with the Red-era power-brokers.
His faith is tested by the dire situation he’s facing, with the church seemingly doomed to extinction because his parishioners don’t have the political or financial juice to stave off the shuttering. He’s also becoming beaten down by the sad plight of a local woman (Veronika Zilkova) he has long secretly loved. Bravely battling cancer as her coarse, blue-collar hubbie and young children helplessly look on, the woman knows of Holy’s feelings, but facing death, she is looking for higher truths to comfort her.
An irascible local sculptor (Jiri Pecha) assists the priest in a risky plan to make a copy of a renaissance-era statue that is housed in the church, in order to sell the original to raise the funds needed to keep the parish structure intact, a scheme that leads the priest through a series of adventures involving the townspeople and the hard-edged authorities. By film’s fade, the priest has managed to keep his spirit together, and also counsel and comfort the dying woman, even touching the hardened heart of her grieving husband.
Though the narrative structure suffers from the same jerky stops and starts as Michalek’s less engaging “Amerika,” here he has the benefit of a beautiful central performance by Polivka, an actor best known locally for his comedic, not dramatic, skills. Zilkova, as the quietly desperate but dignified dying woman, is also outstanding, as is Pecha as the priest’s lively accomplice.
Martin Duba’s lensing brilliantly captures the nuances of the country light and the church’s interior spaces. Though nonbelievers may be put off by the pic’s clear endorsement of the Catholic quest for God’s presence and guidance, story translates as a compelling and universal tale of integrity and faith at war with time, human corruption and the frailties of even the most devout.