Young Marian Stefan Ferko
Older Marian Milan Cifra
David Radek Holub
Tosovska Jaroslava Vyslouzilova
Tina Ludmila Krokova
Eva Terza Zajickova-Grygarova
Teacher Eva Hradilova
An uncommonly assured feature debut, Czech newcomer Petr Vaclav’s “Marian” follows the brief, bruising life of a young Central European gypsy boy inexorably pulled into society’s tough outer margins. Winner of the runner-up Silver Leopard and the Fipresci (international critics’) prize at Locarno, this penetrating, emotionally honest drama is already locked into extensive fest duty through the fall, with scattered arthouse bookings likely to follow.
The film begins with the protagonist in prison at 22, before backtracking to recap his origins as the child of an alcoholic father and an unfit mother. Taken into an orphanage, he is unable to speak Czech and immediately branded as problematic. Growing up in the cold, institutional environment, Marian (Stefan Ferko) becomes rebellious and often hostile. His outlook brightens momentarily when a kind teacher (Jaroslava Vyslouzilova) takes an interest in him, encouraging him to study hard and aim for an apprenticeship. But the same teacher later is forced to punish him. He stabs her, and soon after is sent to a juvenile reformatory.
Now a teenager, Marian (Milan Cifra) develops a crush on Eva (Terza Zajickova-Grygarova), a young prison counselor, but the absence of affection in his life leaves him ill-equipped to act on his feelings. Such emotional repurcussions of growing up without love are Vaclav’s prime concern here.
Marian’s childhood and adolescence are signposted by contact with the few people who show genuine concern for him. Among them is idealistic prison staffer David (Radek Holub), who actually believes in the possibility of rehabilitation but whose trust is betrayed by the young inmates. Between prison terms, Marian begins a relationship with Tina (Ludmila Krokova), but the prejudices of her family and of outsiders, and Marian’s unpredictable nature, bring an end to it, sparking increasingly desperate, violent behavior on his part.
Based on Vaclav’s interviews with Romany children in correctional facilities, the script (co-written with psychoanalyst Jan Sikl) brings economy and directness to its examination of how a negative environment can shape antisocial and criminal tendencies. The film is more matter-of-fact than harrowing, even when the events being chronicled are at their most inhumane, such as when 3 -year-old Marian is brutally scrubbed down for admittance to the orphanage.
A surprising variation of tone also comes into play, with humor not completely shut out, and the occasional warmth between the boys keeps things from becoming unrelentingly downbeat.
Vaclav has a commanding rapport with the mainly non-professional cast, evident particularly in the protagonist’s early years. Helmer maintains a documentary-like respect for his subject that allows the central figure to be moving without resorting to indulgent sentimentality. Ferko and Cifra, taken from juvenile institutions for the film, both strike a fine balance between Marian’s sympathetic and dangerous sides.
Vaclav’s emotional hold on the material is backed by a strong visual sense and fluid pacing. Lenser Stepan Kucera avoids the cliched starkness of the institutional settings, going for a soft, somber light that sits well with the restrained, melancholy drama.