The multilayered “Let There Be Light” is an earnest, relatable state-of-the-nation drama from helmer-writer Marko Škop that highlights xenophobia, religious hypocrisy and the rise of the extreme right in a small Slovak village. Tapping into numerous of-the-moment issues, the story unfolds from the perspective of a middle-aged carpenter who returns at Christmas from working on a construction job in Germany and finds his community (and his sons) in thrall to a controlling Catholic priest and a mysterious, far-right paramilitary youth group called The Guard. Although some may be frustrated by former documentarian Škop’s observational rather than overtly critical view of his country’s rising nationalism, the film raises important and provocative questions for which there are no easy answers.
Cheerful construction worker Milan (Milan Ondrík, empathetic) grew up in the remote village where his family still lives. He was raised by a brutal, critical father (Ľubomír Paulovič) and trained as a carpenter from a young age. He’s just an ordinary guy who, despite his own status as an economic migrant, thinks that foreigners take Slovak jobs. He also spouts his belief that “international capital pulls the strings,” which sounds like a coded anti-Semetic slur.
Although Milan misses his nuclear family when he is away, he reckons that, “In Germany, you earn good money, but you work hard. Here you just work hard.” He hopes the wages that he brings from abroad will provide more opportunities for his three children, but he hasn’t fully considered what his absence from home means for them and his wife Zuzka (Zuzana Konečná).
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The repeated clashes between Zuzka and their teen son Adam (František Beleš) provide Milan’s first clue that something is amiss. The taciturn Adam is constantly glued to his mobile phone; even when present physically, his mind is elsewhere. Škop and longtime DP Ján Meliš capture the essence of what living with a teenager is like as they depict the lad’s comings and goings as a silent shadow crossing the house bookended by the sound of doors opening and closing.
When Adam is questioned about the apparent suicide of one of his classmates, a boy who was bullied, and then later is threatened by the same bullies, who are egged on by the sanctimonious, dissembling priest (Daniel Fischer), the good Catholic Milan is ultimately forced to questions his own values and his role as a father. The latter part of the film accumulates a “High Noon”-ish sort of tension as the family home is attacked and they are ostracized at church.
While the screenplay may seem to be a tad overstuffed with issues, they reflect the anti-gay, anti-Muslim statements that far-right Slovak politicians currently make. And in a country where there is no separation of church and state, it’s both chilling and reminiscent of the WWII Slovak state (which was founded with the help of Nazi Germany), to see the church interfere with democracy and promote intolerance. The narrative also revisits some of themes of the helmer’s prize-winning fiction debut “Eva Nová” — namely, the fraught relationship between parents and children and how the habits and teachings of one generation affect the next.
After his thankless turn as the surly, angry son in “Eva Nová,” Ondrík gets the opportunity to shine as a charismatic, uneducated guy who delivers traditional maxims and endearing Dad jokes, while aspiring to better protect the family he truly loves. In comparison, the rest of the cast, apart from the underused Konečná and the affecting Beleš, seem somewhat stiff.
While “Eva Nová” was set in the hot summer and concluded in a swimming pool, “Let There Be Light” unfolds over Christmas and into the new year in a rural, forested area, covered in deep snow. The attractive widescreen lensing by Meliš, encompassing daytime and nighttime scenes, gives an alternate meaning to the title.