Dry wit and clear storytelling leaven a pleasantly convoluted plot in Slovak-Czech period meller “Cruel Joys.” Promising debut of theater helmer Juraj Nvota could make a joyful noise at fests, be looked upon kindly by specialty distribs and perform sprightly on the tube and in ancillary.
It’s 1933, and the delicate social fabric of a small Slovak town begins to unravel with the arrival of Valentina (Tana Pauhofova), daughter of womanizing notary public Karol (Ondrej Vetchy). Karol hasn’t seen Valentina in many years, and as he has no experience with children and hasn’t told Valentina he is her father, he persuades his shy, stuttering school principal chum Martin (Milan Mikulcik) to put her up as his long-lost niece.
Martin and Valentina are formal with each other at first, but soon the supposedly innocent Valentina begins to charm shy Martin, even as she figures out that Karol is her father.
Though she doesn’t appear to have a manipulative bone in her body, the teenager comes to be resented by Helena (Anna Siskova), who’s having an affair with Karol but is also the subject of Martin’s hesitant affections. To complicate matters even further, Karol is also seeing Ilona (Szidi Tobias), while at the same time managing the estate of her elderly husband.
By the time this gently comic roundelay is over, everybody’s jumped to at least one mistaken conclusion about somebody else, Valentina has become a woman, and a new life has entered the world.
Tackling a complex, multi-character plot, Nvota makes a quietly assured debut; such metaphorical visual flourishes as a branch rippling in a pond are presented organically, with little fanfare. Point of entire exercise seems to be the eccentric whims of human attraction, though brief references to ethnic tensions serve as fleeting reminders that a more serious world lurks just out of sight.
Pauhofova finesses her woman-child role with aplomb, while Siskova and Csongor Kassai (both of “Divided We Fall”) stand out in the finely-balanced ensemble cast. Baleful gravitas is provided by beloved Slovak performer Satinsky and his distinctive walrus moustache; vet comic and author died in late 2002.
Tech credits are pro, with Jan Malir’s discreet camerawork leading the way. Period trappings are spare yet evocative.