So many canny directorial decisions are made in “Filthy” that it’s painful to note how often the film barrels down the wrong path whenever the plot comes to a crossroads. Debuting helmer Tereza Nvotová is an extremely talented filmmaker, sensitive to how her traumatized protagonist is portrayed, yet what starts as a powerfully disturbing, if toned-down, drama about a high-schooler raped by her math teacher turns into a quasi-sensationalist screed against Slovakia’s antiquated mental health system. Rather than give profound meaning to the young woman’s hellish road from victim to survivor, Nvotová and scripter Barbora Námerová draw attention away from her inner turmoil by including overplayed family scenes and a nightmarish psychiatric facility whose chief doctor should be jailed. Notwithstanding disappointing narrative choices, “Filthy” shows off Nvotová’s strong visual acumen and is likely to see busy festival play.
Lena (Dominika Morávková) is a middle-class kid not above cutting classes for a smoke with best friend Róza (Anna Rakovská), who talks as if she’s got nothing to learn about sex. Róza brazenly hits on brooding math teacher Roberto (Robert Jakab), the school’s pin-up prof (he’s not exactly Pietro Boselli, but who is?). Even Lena’s mom (Anna Šišková) comments on his good looks, but Lena herself isn’t interested. One afternoon during a private tutorial at home, Roberto rapes and sodomizes Lena while her mother and brother Bohdan (Patrik Holubář) are also in the house. Shaken to the core, Lena shuts down and says nothing.
Tensions in the house are high in the best of times, due to Bohdan’s inability to deal with a disability that causes him a prominent limp (his volatility forms part of a very unsatisfying plot strand). While her brother explodes at his parents for inviting other disabled kids to his birthday party, Lena quietly cuts her wrists upstairs. Mom feels guilty she may have been neglecting her daughter, but she has her hands full with Bohdan, so she checks Lena into a psychiatric hospital for teens. It’s not a good idea.
Since the rape, Lena has turned completely inward and barely speaks — Morávková does an excellent job conveying pain, confusion, and a sense of absolute loneliness. At the first group-therapy session, the criminally negligent doctor (Ela Lehotská) allows other teens to bully the newcomer and doesn’t even try to control her patients. Lena bonds with roommate Iva (Juliána Oľhová), who was raped by her father, though, shockingly, the doctor refuses to believe her story. Just before Iva is discharged back to her dad, she kills herself, sending Lena into further depression. The cause of Lena’s trauma remains unknown since she’s unable to tell anyone, and without understanding what’s going on, her mother signs papers allowing her daughter to receive electroshock treatment.
In press notes, Nvotová talks about Slovakia’s dreadful mental health system and the horrific conditions inside psychiatric hospitals. She even cast several former patients as side characters in the film, presumably playing versions of themselves (the mix between professional and amateur actors is seamlessly achieved). No doubt doctors like Lena’s exist, making life a misery for people already at risk, but that needs to be a separate film, or at least one that better integrates the protagonist’s poignant trauma instead of forcing its way into the mix; sometimes reality itself needs to be toned down in order to create believable cinema.
The ending aims to offer some kind of catharsis, but by then “Filthy” has lost much of the honest power it had at the start. Morávková’s performance is strong enough to keep sympathy high, and Marek Dvořák’s edgy camera successfully reinforces Lena’s isolation as well as her vulnerability. The choice of an ultra-pale tonal palette, however, creates a frustrating distance between character and viewer that works against some of the film’s most distinguishing features. At times though, Nvotová composes images of mesmerizing intensity — such as a great surreal shot of a bridge at night with a bright band of light, little figures walking along the causeway, and a ferry below. It helps to fix Lena in a particular time and place, and has a lingering power all its own.