Ideally timed to draw domestic audiences back into Czech cinemas, loosely historical local-hero biopic “Havel” doesn’t let pesky facts get in the way of a good story. Multihyphenate Slávek Horák takes creative license with certain facts to stress the irony and absurdity of Václav Havel’s metamorphosis from celebrated playwright to banned and jailed human rights activist to eventual President of Czechoslovakia.
Concentrating more on Havel’s personal evolution (here prodded by the women in his life) and various emotional truths, this vibrant dramedy doesn’t shy from depicting the great man’s weaknesses but it also shows him as generous and modest, an entertaining, talented writer who ultimately steps out of his comfort zone to become politically engaged. While some viewers may take issue with the simplifications, elisions and composites of Horák’s approach, others will be inspired once again by Havel’s courageous battle against oppression and the sacrifices he made.
A brief opening prologue set in the late 1980s lays out one of the central paradoxes of the protagonist’s life: that he does brave things out of cowardice. It’s something that Horák explores throughout the film and that Havel (Viktor Dvořák, a ringer for the young Havel) himself explains to the BBC interviewer (David Penn) smuggled into his beloved country home past the watchful eyes of the secret police.
But Havel the national champion of the 1980s is a far cry from the carefree playwright of the 1960s, wherein the film’s first act is set. At that time, the conscience of this conflict-avoiding scion of a wealthy family appears more concerned with not lying to his first wife Olga (a quietly powerful performance by the great Aňa Geislerová) about his many infidelities. “For once,” she sighs, “couldn’t you just not tell me?”
As depicted by Horák, Olga provides the film’s moral compass, the example that Havel winds up following. As the heady freedoms of the Prague Spring come to an end with the invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries in late summer 1968, he follows her lead in refusing to sign a regime-sponsored document approving the Russian occupation. Both lose their jobs.
The second act takes place in the 1970s. Banned from his beloved theaters, Havel works as a manual laborer in a brewery. The absurdity of the experience inspires him to start writing again. As he sees other artists attacked for expressing themselves freely, his attitude of “I don’t want to protest, I just want to do theater,” changes to one of activism. He becomes one of the architects and original signatories of Charter 77. Horák pictures how the content of the Charter is dispatched to the West in a scene that would not be out of place in the cinema of Milos Forman or Jirí Menzel.
The Charter, which challenged the Czech puppet government to live up to the rights and freedoms enumerated in the Czechoslovak Constitution, proved a provocation too far for the powers-that-be. Havel and his comrades, including hot-headed actor Pavel Landovský (Martin Hofmann) and a prominent philosophy professor (portrayed with appropriate dignity by Karlovy Vary Film Festival President Jiří Bartoška) are imprisoned and interrogated.
When Havel eventually capitulates to the regime’s pressure and agrees to give up political activity in exchange for his release, he is overcome with self-disgust. Horák highlights this with a scene where Olga prepares samzidat from another political prisoner and refuses to tell Havel the names of the typists, saying calmly, “What you don’t know, you can’t tell.” Although he counters that what he told the authorities while in custody they already knew and it hurt no one, the wise Olga retorts, “Not even yourself?”
With his conscience stung to life, Havel returns to subversive activities at the same time as some of his peers decide to flee abroad to practice their art. Now seriously involved with the wife (Barbora Seidlová) of a fellow playwright, Havel starts the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. When he is thrown into prison again, he receives a sentence of four years, six months. In spite of the regime’s offer to drop all charges if he consents to leave the country with Olga, he refuses, noting, “Even if you torture me, you couldn’t torture me more than my own conscience if I give up doing the right thing.”
The rousing screenplay by Rudolf Suchánek and Horák contains some tart dialogue, epitomized by an exchange between Havel and Olga in the third act, set in 1989, when he tells her, “You have always been my First Lady,” and she replies without skipping a beat, “I’d rather be your only lady.” On the helming side, Horák smartly plays with visual transitions between the action and performances of Havel’s plays to mirror the playwright’s growing political commitment.
Capturing the historical period with muted colors and Havel’s prison time with claustrophobic angles, DP Jan Šťastný (cinematographer for Horák’s feature debut “Home Care”) also shoots widescreen with great intimacy. His sensitive camera keeps returning to the revealing expressions of the central players.
Likewise, production designer Vladimír Hruška and costume designer Natálie Steklová do an excellent job of evoking the era, matched by choice period tunes on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, the stirring orchestral score by Petr Malásek provides Hollywood-style cues for the narrative’s turning points.
News footage from the real Havel’s life plays out under the end credits, showing him meeting with politicians and prominent figures from all over the world. A brief glimpse of him hosting the Rolling Stones in Prague Castle is priceless.
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