Film Review: ‘I, Olga Hepnarova’

Freshmen Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda helm a steady, solemn biopic of the last woman sentenced to death in Czechoslovakia.

Michalina Olszanska, Martin Pechlat, Klara Meliskova, Marika Soposka, Juraj Nvota, Marta Mazurek, Zuzana Stavna. (Czech dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2953762/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_1

“To commit suicide you need a strong will, something you certainly don’t have,” the true-life title character of “I, Olga Hepnarova” is told by her mother at the outset of this fearsomely tough-minded biopic. By the time her 22-year-old daughter consciously mowed down eight strangers on a Prague sidewalk in 1973, seeking the death sentence in her guilty plea, Mrs. Hepnarova was proven only half right. Teasing out the psychological roots of a stunning crime with heavily measured, methodical patience, writer-directors Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda construct a still-topical case study of extreme trauma yielded by adolescent bullying and parental neglect, fronted with committed intensity by rising Polish star Michalina Olszanska. A distinctly gloomy choice of curtain raiser for this year’s Berlinale Panorama program, the film can strain a little for its severity, but intelligently dodges sensationalism throughout.

The film’s sensitive handling of Hepnarova’s frustrated homosexuality will earn Weinreb and Kazda’s joint debut feature additional exposure on the LGBT festival circuit. Even with that niche in mind, however, it’s hard to see many distributors stumping up for a film that makes fellow murderess biopics “Monster” and “Dance With a Stranger” look positively life-affirming by comparison. Unforgivingly rigorous to its final, exactingly composed monochrome frame, “I, Olga Hepnarova” shows us scarcely a flickering moment of light or joy in its anti-heroine’s short, loveless life, depicted on screen from adolescence upwards.

In a confessional letter Hepnarova mailed to newspapers before committing mass murder — incorporated verbatim into Weinreb and Kazda’s screenplay — she describes herself as “a wreck, ruined by people,” cataloguing her extensive history of violent mistreatment at the hands of her peers, parents and teachers. (Some of the more heated content in her statements — as when she describes her position as “worse than that of a black American” — will further cause auds and distribs to wince; “verbatim” is a crucial word in this instance, with the documentary-trained helmers loath to soften their protagonist for the purposes of narrative sympathy.)

The film pre-emptively unfolds as a dramatic substantiation of this testimony. Beginning with Hepnarova’s failed attempt to overdose on meprobamate at the tender age of 13, it unflinchingly observes the alleged suffering she subsequently endured — from savage shower-room beatings in the girls’ mental hospital to which she was confined for a stretch, to more tacit insinuations of sexual abuse at home. (In one disconcerting scene, d.p. Adam Sikora’s camera hovers in an empty hallway for 45 silent seconds before Hepnarova’s father leaves the room she just entered.) There are no title cards to shape or separate the film’s early chronology as young Olga grows to adulthood, while 23-year-old Olszanska (who also recently impressed in Sundance mermaid fantasy “The Lure”) plays her continuously — and convincingly, with only a shift in hairstyle to a raggedy dark bob marking her coming of age. It’s an effective strategy, appropriately blurring Hepnarova’s childhood as a kind of indefinite hell; as an adult, on the other hand, she still seems insecurely stuck in transitional limbo.

After leaving her middle-class home, Hepnarova drifts between jobs, finding tomboyish employment as a truck driver and eventually, cautiously, coming out as a lesbian — though while we’re party to a few of her same-sex dalliances, she maintains that she’s a “sexual cripple.” The film’s depiction of her older years lacks the harsh, visceral impact of its earlier scenes, prolonging and repeating its emotional beats to convey her growing alienation from polite society, and rather too vaguely sketching a rare friendship with older man Miroslav (Martin Pechlat, providing the pic’s few notes of warmth). The completed portrait feels somewhat lengthy even at 104 minutes, though her climactic crime — driving her truck down a crowded city sidewalk, bodies crumpling in her path — is shown with matter-of-fact economy; the psychological switchbacks of her trial and conviction, meanwhile, are horribly compelling. If the character’s awkward physicality is a little forced at points, Olszanska remains a magnetizing presence even through the film’s less urgent stretches.

Weinreb and Kazda, for their part, sometimes seem overly enamored of their film’s formal sobriety, with a pronounced taste for painstakingly held static shots and sonic minimalism — though their understatement also has promising rewards, as in a perfectly pitched final tableau of agonized domestic stability in the wake of tragedy. There’s sound judgment, too, in their and Sikora’s decision to deploy black-and-white lensing not for high-contrast, noir-tinged atmospherics, but instead a lighter, newsprint-like journalistic neutrality. Further below-the-line kudos are owed to production designer Alexandr Kozak, who re-creates the dusty, predated-in-period effect of Soviet-era interiors and vehicles with wholly nostalgia-free authenticity.

Film Review: 'I, Olga Hepnarova'

Reviewed online, Paris, Feb. 10, 2016. (In Berlin Film Festival — Panorama, opener.) Running time: 104 MIN. (Original title: "Ja, Olga Hepnarova")

Production: (Czech Republic-Poland-Slovakia-France) A Black Balance, Media Brigade, Alef Film & Media, Love.Frame production, in co-production with Spoon, Barrandov Studios, Michael Samuelson Lighting Prague, Famu, Odra-Film, Arizona Prods, Frame 100R. (International sales: Arizona Prods., Paris.) Produced by Tomas Weinreb, Petr Kazda, Vojtech Fric, Sylwester Banaszkiewicz, Marcin Kurek, Marian Urban. Executive producers, Agata Walkosz. Co-producers, Petr Tichy, Jan Kohout, Martin Palecek, Karolina Baresova, Ondrej Sejnoha, Guillaume de Seille, Andrzej Bialas.

Crew: Directed, written by Tomas Weinreb, Petr Kazda; story, Roman Cilek. Camera (B&W), Adam Sikora; editor, Vojtech Fric; production designer, Alexandr Kozak; costume designer, Aneta Grnakova; sound, Miroslav Masica; sound designers, Richard Muller, Peter Kapeller; visual effects supervisor, Martin Petro; stunt coordinators, Grzegorz Mikolajcz, Bartosz Padewski, Petr Drozda; line producers, Rene Korenar, Zuzana Ricotti; associate producer, Olga Raitoralova; assistant directors, Julia Popkiewicz, Tomas Pavlacky, Andrzej Bednarski, Vojtech Fric; casting, Popkiewicz.

With: Michalina Olszanska, Martin Pechlat, Klara Meliskova, Marika Soposka, Juraj Nvota, Marta Mazurek, Zuzana Stavna. (Czech dialogue)

More Film

  • Fig Tree review

    Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree'

    It’s a question integral to much of the current international immigration debate: When war breaks out, who gets to flee and who’s left with nowhere to run? As a child, writer-director Aalam-Warqe Davidian was among a majority of Ethiopian Jews who emigrated to Israel. In her loosely autobiographical feature debut, a teenager facing similar circumstances [...]

  • Jeff BridgesJeff Bridges, who stars in

    Film News Roundup: Jeff Bridges Wins American Society of Cinematographers Honor

    In today’s film news roundup, Jeff Bridges is honored by cinematographers, the “Arctic” filmmakers get a first-look deal and releases are set for “Vault,” the Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron comedy and “What Lies Ahead.” BRIDGES HONORED More Reviews Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree' Film Review: 'Pledge' The American Society of Cinematographers has selected Jeff Bridges as [...]

  • Cate Blanchett's 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette'

    Cate Blanchett's 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' Moved Back to August

    Annapurna Pictures has moved its Richard Linklater literary adaptation “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” starring Cate Blanchett back five months from March 22 to an Aug. 9 release. A rep for Annapurna explained that August has served well as a launching pad for release of female-skewing films such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Florence Foster Jenkins” and [...]

  • Kumail Nanjiani Issa Rae

    Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae to Star in 'Lovebirds' Romantic Comedy

    “The Big Sick” star Kumail Nanjiani and “Insecure” star Issa Rae will topline Paramount’s romantic comedy “The Lovebirds.” The project will reunite Nanjiani with “The Big Sick” helmer Michael Showalter, who’s on board to direct from a script by Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall, and Martin Gero. The project goes into production at the end of [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. More Reviews Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree' [...]

  • 'The Pledge' Review

    Film Review: 'Pledge'

    “Privilege comes with sacrifice” says one character to another in “Pledge” — exactly the kind of noble sentiment authority figures always voice to hush the protests of those about to be sacrificed. This third feature for director Daniel Robbins is no delicate flower of cinematic art, but a lean and mean shocker that tells its [...]

  • John Lithgow

    John Lithgow-Blythe Danner's 'Tomorrow Man' Bought Ahead of Sundance Premiere

    In one of the first deals for the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, Bleecker Street has acquired North American rights to the John Lithgow-Blythe Danner romance “The Tomorrow Man.” The movie will hold its world premiere at the fest, which opens on Jan. 24 in Park City, Utah. The distributor is planning a May 17 release. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content