With a thoughtful script, elegiac lensing, a masterful music score and a triumvirate of exquisite performances, this Central European “High Noon” gave Czech helmer Vladimir Michalek to turn out a first-class wartime morality drama. But a slackening of tension in the drawn-out second half ultimately lets the viewer down, denying the tragic catharsis promised. Still, commercial prospects in home territories (pic also has a Polish-language version) look solid, along with further theatrical pickup and classy tube sales. The opening night attraction at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, “Sekal Has To Die” took home two awards, including best actor for rising Polish star Olaf Lubaszenko.
Lubaszenko plays the reluctant antihero, Jura Baran, a Nazi resister already semi-numbed by defeat. He arrives in a small Czech village to hide out from the German authorities, armed with a letter of introduction from the mayor’s (Milan Riehs) similarly renegade brother. The petty bureaucrat is a self-important coward who, in short order, sets Baran up as the local blacksmith. As a Lutheran in dogmatically Catholic territory, Baran soon crosses paths with the bastard Sekal (Boguslaw Linda), an amoral opportunist who gobbles up local farms by turning in the owners to the Nazis.
Scripter Jiri Krizan draws a complex portrait of Sekal, which Linda colors with a full palette. With plenty to be bitter about, he’s merely the most outwardly unsavory of the villagers, a permanent sneer barely covering the explosive cocktail of emotions eating away at him. Scorned by his father (Jiri Holy), Sekal covets the respectability of his younger half-brother (Martin Sitta), as well as his lovely but discontented wife, Anezka (Agnieszka Sitek).
With the complicity of his only companion, dwarf and fellow bastard Zaprdek (Ludovit Cittel), Sekal makes good on his threats to the farmers. But when two farms don’t ease his lonely soul, Sekal demands a neighbor’s fields, the mayor’s daughter as his bride and a night with Anezka. Enough is enough, and the farmers elect Baran in absentia to kill Sekal, with Sekal’s father proclaiming the death sentence.
Baran, meanwhile, has formed a bond of mutual respect with the village priest , Father Flora (Jiri Bartoska), to the shock of the parish housekeeper, Marie (Vlasta Chramostova), who happens to be Sekal’s mother. Bartoska (best known on the international circuit as president of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival) turns in one of his best performances, guided by humility and restraint.
The dozen elders who summon Baran to their glum “last supper” are a study in character portraits, lensed in warm chiaroscuro by Martin Strba.
Michalek, whose previous effort, “Forgotten Light,” dealt with the trials of a Catholic priest trying to save his church and one of his parishioners, overlays the film with biblical references. Flora, Baran and Sekal form a triangle of father, son and unholy spirit. Questions of individual morality are nicely modulated in the conversations between Baran and Flora. The parallel issue of collective morality, currently at a low ebb in the Czech Republic, is darkly rendered here.Krizan’s script relocates the story of a prairie town’s lone savior to the heart of Europe in WWII with complete credibility. Artistic and technical contributions are far above par for contemporary films from the region. The film’s near-monochromatic tones give it the hauntingly parched atmosphere of a classic Western. Michal Lorenc’s subtle score, from its Aaron Copland–influenced opening to its requiem finale, elevates the film.