Czech director Václav Kadrnka’s “Little Crusader” may have been the first local production in 15 years to win the Crystal Globe for Best Film at Karlovy Vary this year, but in all other respects it’s a typical success story from Eastern Europe’s largest film festival — one that exemplifies its programmers’ dual commitment to highlighting challenging independent auteur voices and showcasing a regional cinema often sidelined at other international fests. A formally rigorous, Medieval-set ode to faith and fatherhood, inspired by a 19th-century epic poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický, it’s a defiantly uncommercial work that may now get a greater shot at beyond-borders distribution thanks to its big win — the kind of boost to unconventional artistry that is Karlovy Vary’s raison d’etre.
By contrast, the clear crowdpleaser of this year’s Competition selection — “The Cakemaker,” Israeli debut director Ofir Raul Graizer’s tender, moving tale of a gay German baker and a Jerusalem widow united by grief — went unrewarded by the jury. It’s a fine film, though hardly one as tonally or stylistically taxing as “Little Crusader”: Going forward, its reward is likely to come via a swifter flurry of distributor interest on the festival circuit.
These two films represent opposite ends of the spectrum covered by this year’s Competition, which was dominated by stories of social and political crisis, many of them revisiting recent history: Georgian director George Ovashvili followed up his 2014 Crystal Globe winner “Corn Island” with “Khibula,” a stately, heightened imagining of Georgia’s first post-independence president Zviad Gamsachurdia’s 1991 exile; Alen Drljevic’s robust Jury Prize winner “Men Don’t Cry” examines the contemporary legacy of conflict in the former Yugoslavia; Polish entry “Birds Are Singing in Kigali,” a poignant swansong for its late co-director Krzysztof Krauze, not only meditates on the trauma incurred by the Rwandan genocide, but subtly addresses the current European refugee crisis via its 1994-set story of a Tutsi woman trying to rebuild her life in Poland. (Topical refugee-focused cinema — also represented at Karlovy Vary by such features as the documentary “Another News Story” — continues to be the year’s most consistent trend on the festival circuit.)
These are imposing, substantial films; notwithstanding the inclusion of Tribeca-premiered, autism-themed romantic comedy “Keep the Change,” the Karlovy Vary competition largely lived up to its reputation for thoughtful severity. More irreverent entertainments and genre riffs were to be found, as usual, in the festival’s Eastern European-specific East of the West strand, which nonetheless is equally dedicated to alternative cinema. This year’s winner, the eccentric, darkly comic and singularly titled Russian road movie “How Viktor the Garlic Took Alexey the Stud to the Nursing Home” honored both ends of that programming brief.
This is not the kind of high-polish, border-busting arthouse cinema that tends to gobble up prizes at such festivals as Cannes — the cream of which, as ever, Karlovy Vary’s selectors assiduously gather for the non-competitive strands of their broad, lively program. But they remain committed to establishing an edgier, more idiosyncratic brand for their own discoveries: wherever a Karlovy Vary winner might travel in the future, there’s little mistaking where it came from.