VIFF 2022: The Word (Slovo)

The Word is the story of a Czech couple played by Gabriela Mikulkova (far left) and Marin Finger (far right) trying to keep their lives and family together after intense political change.

The first feature-length live-action film I saw during the VIFF was the Czech film The Word. This is a historical drama that tells of a story quite personal to the director.

Vaclav Vojir is a successful lawyer in Czechoslovakia in 1968. It’s not made clear where he works but he lives in a small town with his wife and two children. Vojir is good in his work and he deals with his clients in a humane way. One day in the summer of 1968, he meets with two men whom he didn’t have an appointment. They are men from the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. They dictate to him of how he is to do his profession. Ever since the Prague Spring earlier that year, the Communist Party has a heavier hand than before. They also noticed that Vojir was one person who signed a manifesto for more freedom that year. They threaten him with possible imprisonment in the future if he doesn’t sign an agreement with them.

Soon after, he meets with his wife Vera Vojirova and his children Ales and Emicka. He tells her of what happened and how he fears for the future. It comes at a tough time as summer is approaching. The family go on vacation at the beach, but Vaclav can’t forget what could happen to him. He tries to hide it from his children and wife and try to be a family man, but he can’t let it out of his head. Vera is in close contact with her sisters and tells them of all that’s happening. Word soon gets out over town.

Soon the pressures of being under the thumb of the Communist government bear down on Vaclav. He has a mental breakdown. His mental health has deteriorated so much, he has rendered himself bedridden. Soon Vaclav has to be institutionalized. The sisters feel it’s best off that Vera divorce him. They know she loves Vaclav, but the Communist government is a menacing force on the entire nation. Vera gets the nerve to visit Vaclav in the hospital. She has food for him and she reminds him that she still loves him and will do everything to keep the family unit intact.

As Spring 1969 approaches, Vaclav is now feeling better and he’s fit to be released from the hospital. He returns to a home that’s happy to see him again. However as he returns to his job, he is reminded that the pressures from the Communist government to do as he is told have not left him. He’s still under their thumb. Vaclav will stand by his word, but he knows he could face dire consequences. He could avoid them, but he can’t risk another relapse of his mental health. In the summer of 1969, Vaclav then makes the decision for him and his family to move. They’re going to leave the pressures of his job and the talk of the town behind to start a new life in another town. It’s unclear in terms of his career, but it’s known for the sake of his marriage and family.

This film is a reminder of the Cold War. Those 40 and over will remember it. It was the Communist world and the non-Communist world constantly threatening each other or trying to look menacing to each other. In the Communist world, the government were like a big brother to you and your daily life. For Czechoslovakia, things were definitely at their hardest after the Prague Spring of 1968. The government became harder on the people and those who were part of the movement for freedom faced threats of imprisonment. today, the Cold War and the Communist regimes are a thing of the past most Eastern Europeans. The nations did make the move to freedom starting in 1989. Some nations even dismantled themselves, like Czechoslovakia becoming Czechia and Slovakia. However ugly reminders still remain.

This is a story that happened just as the Soviet tanks had just come in and crushed Czechoslovakia’s move to freedom. People who participated in any activities leading to freedom were either punished or threatened. That especially meant people in their jobs like Vaclav Vojir. He was a lawyer who strongly believed in integrity and the power of staying to one’s word. However political pressure was menacing. It became a point where it affected his mental health. It was as much of a frustrating situation for his wife Vera. She too believed in the importance of staying married to Vaclav. She too was one who was willing to fight to keep the family unit together. Even if people advised her to divorce for the sake of the situation, she would not budge. I think the whole theme of the film is of how life under Communist rule really put people’s values to the test. Even though the Vojir family is miles away from the biggest hostility of the Prague Spring, it doesn’t mean they won’t feel it.

The story does a good job of telling of how the Communist government caused a lot of friction in people’s lives, especially in many family units. What’s unique about it is it does a good job of showing it over a one-year period. It starts in the summer of 1968 and it moves over time progressing as it goes from season to season. Each scene is an average of ten-minutes long and takes place in a single location or single area. Holidays are also important as they show the time change and also the occasions where families got together. The vacations and family time are also important as they showcase the relation between the Vojir’s and how much the family means to them. It’s a case where the surroundings are as important at telling the story as the actual dialogue and events. Also the additional element as the end of each scene of showing three photographs of the people involved, especially since no camera is shown, adds to the uniqueness of the storytelling.

This film is an excellent work from Czech filmmaker Beata Parkanova. Parkanova is relatively unknown outside of Europe. She wrote her first feature-length screenplay in 2015 and directed her first film Chvilky in 2018. This film is a different story for her as it is a retelling of a situation that happened in her grandparents’ family. She doesn’t go for big action in this story. The biggest most brutal action of the revolt happened around this time. Instead it’s a story low on action and more intense on the situation. Parkanova helps us keep our intrigue with the story and watch as the time progresses.

Actor Martin Finger does an excellent job of acting as he portrays Vaclav Vojir. He’s one of Czechia’s more renowned actors in recent years. Here he does a very good job in his portrayal of a man who will try to stay strong, but is prone to being under pressure. Also excellent is the acting of Gabriela Mikulkova. Her portrayal of the wife and the one who will most do whatever it takes to keep the family together is worthy of admiration. One could argue it’s her who best carries the film. The additional characters in the film like the Vojir children and Vera’s sisters add to the element of storytelling. At the Karlovy Very Film festival, the film was a nominee for the Crystal Globe for Best Film and Parkanova won the Best Director Ward and Finger Best Actor. The film continues to do the film festival circuit and was a nominee for Best Debut Film at the Haifa Film Festival.

The Word is an impressive melodrama that sends a message of how political change can impact individuals and families. The story isn’t told in intense fashion, but its story does give a lot of impact.

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