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Vaterland – A Hunting Logbook

Czech theater director David Jarab brings a fertile imagination to his first feature film, a surrealist gem about heirs who return to a post-Communist-type country to check out the remains of their aristocratic past and get involved in a most unusual hunting expedition. If only this offbeat delight had a punchy ending instead of slinking off into the narrative undergrowth, it would be a sure winner.

With:
With: Frantisek Rehak, Karel Roden, Petr Forman, Dana Polakova, Vasil Fridrich, Roman Zach, Julio Martin da Fonseca, Jose Figueiredo, Matej Forman.

Czech theater director David Jarab brings a fertile imagination to his first feature film, a surrealist gem about heirs who return to a post-Communist-type country to check out the remains of their aristocratic past and get involved in a most unusual hunting expedition. If only this offbeat delight had a punchy ending instead of slinking off into the narrative undergrowth, it would be a sure winner. As is, ending induces much head-scratching, and pic will have to be ferreted out of sidebars like Rotterdam’s Cinema of the Future. But it’s certainly worth a look for jaded programmers stalking something new.

Four brothers and two of their wives jump into their sports cars and head for a family get-together in the old country. Although the impeccable old caretaker Willmer (Frantisek Rehak) and his son have done their best, the country manor is falling to pieces. The nearby village seems populated by sinister, inbred half-wits. In a ghost story parody, the foreigners settle into their rooms in the huge house, which pulsates with a deep, dark mystery.

Willmer, at Richard’s (Karel Roden) insistence, makes preparations for a “skeleter” hunt, and members of the group outfit themselves with strange instruments and clothes belonging to their ancestors. Exactly what “skeleters” are is at first left to the audience’s imagination, but when they are finally visualized, they are disquieting creatures indeed. This extremely cruel and unnecessary sport, a nobleman’s privilege the neo-capitalists have bequeathed themselves in a more politically correct form, is both disgusting and blackly comic. Jarab’s excellent command of tone gets some good shots off at arrogant Western colonial attitudes toward Eastern Europe.

Back from the hunt, the family mysteries are not over. Brotherly relations begin to deteriorate under the strain of the unknown, which includes strange, obscene frescoes in the basement and a madwoman in the attic. At this critical point, the script lets the big game escape, in a lame ending that perplexes rather than gives meaning to the tale. If it is meant as an allegory about the legacy of communism, it fails to be clear enough.

The ensemble cast offers poker-faced parodies of the genre. Marek Jicha’s DV-to-35mm lensing guides the fine tech work in creating a sense of heightened reality filled with nearly constant tension.

Vaterland - A Hunting Logbook

Czech Republic

Production: A Cinart TV Prague/Czech TV/Universal Production Partner/Ateliery Bonton Zlin production. (International sales: Filmexport Prague.) Produced by Viktor Schwarcz, Vit Komrzy, Zdenek Skaunic, Jan Otcenasek, Jaroslav Kucera. Directed, written by David Jarab.

Crew: Camera (color), Marek Jicha; editor, Jan Danhel; music, Petr Haas, Jan Ponocny, Roman Zach; production designer, Milan Popeika; costume designer, Sylva Zimula Hanakova; sound (Dolby digital), Dan Nemec. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Cinema of the Future), Jan. 30, 2005. Running time: 104 MIN.

With: With: Frantisek Rehak, Karel Roden, Petr Forman, Dana Polakova, Vasil Fridrich, Roman Zach, Julio Martin da Fonseca, Jose Figueiredo, Matej Forman.

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