It isn’t that people’s first instincts are bad in “Victim,” Slovak director Michal Blaško’s compelling, apprehensive feature debut. A distraught Ukrainian mother travelling back to her adopted home in the Czech Republic to be by her injured son’s hospital bedside, for example, will find someone willing to drive her when her bus is delayed. It’s just that once they find those instincts lining up with their pre-existing prejudices — say, when the boy alleges, or heavily implies, that the ones who beat him up were of Roma background — then those same people will erase all nuance, ignore all complexity, and do almost anything to drink further into the intoxication of righteous moral outrage. Even if it means shoring up a teenager’s lie.
The mother is Irina (a sympathetic, stressed Vita Smachelyuk), a hardworking housekeeper who aspires to open a hairdressing salon with her friend Sveta (Inna Zhulina), and who is re-applying for Czech citizenship — having lost out the last time on a technicality. Her son, Igor (an appropriately sullen Gleb Kuchuk) is a promising gymnast, or at least he was until he landed in hospital with injuries so severe he lost a kidney. When he regains consciousness after the surgery, Irina is by his side, as is local police investigator Novotny (Igor Chmela). With a barely perceptible motion, Igor indicates, in answer to a leading question, that the three assailants who attacked him in the stairwell of his apartment building were “not white.” Suspicion immediately falls on the upstairs neighbors, a Roma family headed by a single mother, with whom Irina already has a combative, mutually unfriendly relationship. The elder son is duly arrested.
Blaško, working from an efficient, singleminded script by Jakub Medvecky, keeps the focus trained on Irina, and on Smachelyuk’s superbly controlled yet conflicted performance — which becomes especially fraught once Igor confesses to her that he made up the attack, out of embarrassment over injuries actually sustained while showboating to impress a girl from school. By then it’s already too late to stop the political juggernaut of clashing vested interests: The media are covering the story; rabble-rousing local activist Selsky (Viktor Zavadil) has organized a rally and a “March for Igor”; and the mayor (Gabriela Míčová), sensing the political opportunity concealed in this potential quagmire, has quickly offered Irina her photo-opp-heavy support.
So while Irina initially conspires to cover up her son’s lie purely out of protective, maternal impulses, soon she’s getting in deeper, being offered unforeseen perks and benefits for being such a high-profile, easy-to-root-for “victim.” Suddenly her hair salon, her Czech citizenship, even a bigger apartment in a better neighborhood, all seem within her reach. All she has to do is ignore her nagging conscience, and commit to a false, racist fiction.
Shot by DP Adam Mach with somber Romanian New Wave-style realism, in handheld images that get implacably steadier as the situation becomes more intractable, the film zeroes in on Irina’s moral crisis, as the police refuse to release the Roma boy she knows to be innocent. But its most trenchant — and most depressing — insights might actually come from other quarters. Sveta’s blithe reaction when, half a bottle of vodka deep, Irina admits that Igor lied and an innocent kid is paying the price, is to go from supportive if slur-ridden indignance to “he would have ended up in prison anyway” without missing a beat. The ever-pragmatic Selsky, momentarily wrong-footed by Irina’s rally speech calling for the boy’s release, manages a horrifying but impressively quick-thinking onstage pivot to broader, more toxic fearmongering and anti-Roma sentiment.
It’s these asides that give Blaško’s film its edge, when elsewhere it can feel a little familiar — especially to fans of Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” — in its analysis of the toll a corrupt, agenda-laden society can take on a basically decent individual, who becomes increasingly compromised after one grievous but understandably motivated decision.
While the film’s sympathies are schematically clear, to a certain extent it does what it critiques in centering the moral quandary of the white family who have unjustly co-opted the “victim” label and pushing to the periphery the very tangible struggles of the Roma family who have actually earned it. Irina’s ultimate punishment is the removal of the illusion of her child’s innate goodness, where her Roma counterpart must endure the potential removal of her child. Despite the unimpeachable intentions and smooth, tense, fluid delivery, a little more balance between these characters might have made for a more provocative film. As it is, in terms of the skewed, whitened lens through which society views issues of systemic xenophobia, “Victim” is a victim itself.