Made in Prague: the psychological torment of Czech cinema is easy to admire but hard to recommend

Psychosis, hysteria and abuse characterises these works that look back at the former Soviet and Socialist republics.

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The Made in Prague film festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The programme, which you can investigate here, runs until 5 December but I would draw your attention immediately to Petr Václav’s curious and unsettling film We Are Never Alone.

The screening is presented in conjunction with The New Social, a London-based collective which, it says here, “takes a sweeping look across Russia and former Soviet and Socialist republics to uncover how new social, political and cultural identities are being played out on film in the post-socialist era.”

The answer, if Vaclav’s film is any indication, is: bleakly.

In an unnamed Czech town, several hard-luck cases are reaching the end of their tether. There’s a twitchy prison guard (Miroslav Hanus) who is paranoid that some of his former wards are out to kill him. He looks like a picture of sanity next to his hypochondriac neighbour (Karel Roden) who spends half his time wailing to the skies over his impending mortality and the other half painstakingly contorting his body in the search for incriminating new moles and blemishes. He is married to an understandably downcast checkout assistant (Lenka Vlasakova) who develops an obsession with an uncouth pimp (Zdenek Godla) in an unlikely but intriguing storyline that seems to have strayed in from a Bertrand Blier movie.

Through this emotionally and physically desolate landscape wanders the young offspring of this sorry bunch – their raw, blank faces bearing witness to the suffering and psychosis around them as the picture veers back and forth between dry monochrome and lurid colour for no apparent reason.

What saves We Are Never Alone from being oppressively grim is Václav’s unusual, offbeat eye for framing and tone. Scenes here that could have been straightforwardly dour acquire a mordant wit that places some crucial distance between the characters’ experiences and our perspective on them.

It isn’t that we are invited to feel superior – more that Václav finds room for a dab of the absurdist humour that is synonymous with the Czech new wave directors of the late 1960s, such as Jiří Menzel and Miloš Forman.

Sometimes all it takes is a wordless, incredulous reaction shot from one of the children, inserted as a counterpoint to the hysteria of the adults, to offset the despair. Those nippers aren’t slow to realise what’s going on around them. The sons of the prison guard and the hypochondriac even incorporate their parents’ foibles into their rough-and-tumble games. “Your dad thinks he’s dying!” cries one lad in a sing-song voice. “Your dad doesn’t know he’s ill in the head!” the other one calls back. What larks.

The picture needs those moments of respite, especially as it edges toward a sense of apocalypse that is all too timely. In one scene, a character announces his ambitions to run for president, and sets out a manifesto that consists of “sending those who don’t belong here back where they came from” and railing against “journalists and lying economic experts babbling on TV”. That uncomfortable scraping noise you can hear is a film getting too close to the bone.

I, Olga is an even more gruelling experience, if that were possible. Olga Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska) is a 22-year-old woman who deliberately drove a van at pedestrians on a Prague pavement in 1973, killing eight people. At her trial, she insisted on her own execution, arguing that the crime would have more gravity if she were put to death. She got her wish: she was the last woman to be hanged in Czechoslovakia.

The writer-directors Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda have shot I, Olga in crisp black-and-white (no escape routes into colour here) but its psychological content occupies more of a grey area. Though Olga’s emotional hardships at the hands of a cold, insensitive mother and abusive father – not to mention the violent bullying she suffers from her peers – are shown in detail, the film rightly stops short of conclusive explanation. It’s an existential horror film, shot and performed with care and compassion. Easy to admire but hard to recommend.

The Made in Prague film festival runs in London until 5 December 2016. We Are Never Alone screens on 30 November 2016. I, Olga is in cinemas now and available to watch on MUBI.com.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.