The stereotype of Eastern European cinema — bleak, feel-bad drama barely leavened by caustic humor — rings true for the ironically titled “We Are Never Alone,” the fourth feature from Czech helmer-writer Petr Vaclav. Employing a fractured narrative and images that occasionally switch from black-and-white to color for no particular reason, this often grotesque, sometimes blackly comic tale follows the interconnected lives of some not particularly likable people struggling to survive in a small provincial outpost. Still, “Alone” was named best film in the Berlin Film Festival’s Forum program by the Tagesspiegel Readers’ Jury, and select fest play should follow.
The setting is a one-horse town surrounded by forest and divided by a two-lane road that is bordered by indistinguishable low-rise housing. The town’s main attractions seem to be a prison, a nightclub brothel and a mini-mart/gas station, and it’s populated by miserablist characters, only a few of whom are named, locked in a cycle of interdependence and desperation of which they are barely conscious.
They include a paranoid prison guard (Miroslav Hanus), who locks off the separate rooms in his apartment, forcing his wife and young son to have to knock to enter, and spouts the sort of racist rants that would no doubt be appreciated by Donald Trump supporters; the harried mini-mart clerk (Lenka Vlasakova) who is unhappily married to an unemployed hypochondriac (Karel Roden, in a flabbergasting performance light years away from the sleek Euro-villains he plays in Hollywood); Milan (Zdenek Godla), the burly, hot-tempered gypsy bouncer from the nightclub who becomes the object of the clerk’s sexual obsession; and Sylva (the charismatic Klaudia Dudova), the sleek, hard-drinking gypsy stripper whom Milan lusts after, although she remains faithful to her boyfriend, who is locked away in the prison.
The prison guard’s young son sends his father further off the deep end by stealing out at night and dropping broken dolls and dead animals at their doorstep. The hypochondriac, who takes a keen interest in his own excrement, traumatizes his two sons with his hysterical scenes. He’s such a repulsive of mass of self-pity that it’s no wonder his wife, who cannot bear for him to touch her, decides that she’s in love with Milan. For his part, Milan is willing to bed her but rather ungraciously compares her to Sylva, compelling the middle-aged hausfrau to don a tight, low-cut dress and try her luck at the brothel. Stir into the mix a knifing and a shooting, and viewers soon wind up feeling as alienated as the characters.
For Vaclav, who won practically every Czech film award in 2014 for “The Way Out,” a social critique of anti-Roma prejudice, this exaggerated look at the state of his country’s ills reps an odd summation of his directing work so far. The plight of gypsies in Czech and Slovak society was the subject of his first (and, to many, best) feature, “Marian” (1996). His second film, the end-of-a-marriage tale, “Parallel Worlds (2002), starred Roden and Vlasakova, who play another unhappy couple here. And as in “The Way Out,” which starred Dudova, a non-professional actor who proved a big-screen natural, “We Are Never Alone” introduces another Roma non-pro, Godla, who takes to thesping like a duck to water.
Even if it seems likely that Czechs will not care for this film, they might be drawn to see it for Roden’s performance alone; it’s not likely that the nation’s biggest male star will take on a role quite like this again. The rest of the cast is equally fine.
Vaclav’s regular d.p., Stepan Kucera, does fluidly accomplished work, neatly limning the claustrophobic spaces that trap the characters, and the contrasting freedom they seem to find in the woods. After long gaps between projects earlier in his career, Vaclav is now extremely busy, with a new feature, “Skokan,” in post; he’ll continue with the ambitious period piece “Il Boemo,” about a friend and teacher of Mozart.