Still pumping out quality fare at the rate of almost a pic a year, prolific Czech helmer Jan Hrebejk (“Divided We Fall”) reunites with regular scripter Petr Jarchovsky for one of the duo’s most resonant and serious undertakings in “Kawasaki’s Rose.” Despite tackling the weighty subject of Czechs coming to terms with their collaborationist past under communism, Hrebejk and Jarchovsky never let politics take precedence over characterization, producing an emotionally meaty family drama — flecked with ironic moments — that can easily connect at a human level with upscale offshore auds.
Film has been riding high on the local charts since release last Christmas, and is receiving its international preem at the Berlin fest as the opener of the Panorama Special section. Curiously, Hrebejk’s pics never seem to have found top favor with selectors at Europe’s three major fests, but “Rose” would easily have given some bloom to this year’s Berlinale in a competition slot.
While many other Central European countries have dealt with their collaborationist past in movies, Hrebejk and Jarchovsky claim theirs is the first to do so in the Czech Republic. Typically, but without devaluing the content, it’s dealt with in a very Czech way — sans real bitterness, marbled with a lightness of touch, and capped by a final scene that’s wound-healing in its tartly genial humor.
Pavel Josek (Martin Huba), a respected university prof and former clinical psychiatrist famous for standing up to the communist regime in the past, is the subject of a TV docu, though he quietly insists that he doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal. He has a loving, supportive wife, Jana (Daniela Kolarova), and a grown daughter, Lucie (Lenka Vlasakova), who’s just had a successful operation for a rare tumor.
But not all is roses in the Josek garden. Lucie’s husband, Ludek (Milan Mikulcik), who’s the son of a communist and from the wrong side of the tracks, has always despised Pavel and what he sees as his self-satisfied, intellectual arrogance. In a rather too convenient script device, Ludek happens to be the sound engineer on the docu, quietly seething as the crew shoots Pavel working, reminiscing on his veranda, and so forth. Pavel and Jana just think he’s a tad boring.
Cracks in the family facade start to show when Ludek confesses to Lucie — on the day she returns from the hospital — that he never fully split up with his former g.f., Radka (Petra Hrebickova). In a wonderful sequence that’s utterly Czech in its understated humor, Radka and Ludek try to discuss things rationally with Lucie, with Radka offering to lend the cuckolded wife a book on Buddhist therapy.
When the TV crew comes across an undoctored file on Pavel’s past, which also includes details of another former dissident — artist Borek (Antonin Kratochvil, in a wonderfully breezy perf), now living in Sweden — Pavel’s reputation threatens to unravel.
The TV crew’s trail leads not only to Sweden, to interview Borek, but also to a former secret police interrogator, Kafka (Ladislav Chudik, excellent), now an old man who coolly details his methods to the documakers, as well as revealing shocking new evidence.
Clever cross-cutting during this section succinctly edits together developments in three different locations as the complex backstory is revealed. But even more sides to the equation are still to come, with no simple villains or heroes — an approach that also implicitly criticizes the media’s love of muckraking, especially by a TV crew of idealistic young people for whom the past is simply a black or white affair.
Ensemble performances are topnotch, from Huba and Kolarova as the husband and wife who still retain their dignity even as their past becomes media property, through Vlasakova as their conflicted daughter, to smaller parts like Anna Simonova as Bara, Lucie’s restless teen daughter. One cross-generational scene between Huba and Simonova is a beauty, showing how Jarchovsky’s well-worked script keeps all family members involved in the ensemble at all times.
Martin Sacha’s widescreen lensing, sharply transferred from DV, and Ales Brezina’s supportive score (mixing Philippe Sarde-like corrente rhythms with excerpts from Handel’s opera “Ariodante”) are further plusses.