The brutal, moving tale of an abused young woman’s revenge in Communist Czechoslovakia had its North American premiere at Fantasia.
***** out of *****
While watching this grim, superbly realized feature-length dramatic biography about the last person ever executed in Czechoslovakia, my mind occasionally drifted to the famous tagline for Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge exploitation classic I Spit on Your Grave. It read:
‘This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned four men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!’
Within the context of that vile, but oddly affecting grade Z drive-in picture, it’s hard not to agree with the provocative sentiments expressed in the aforementioned declaration. I Spit on Your Grave is, however, pure fiction, whereas I, Olga Hepnarová is hardly an exploitation film: it is based on a true-life revenge-crime story that actually occurred in Prague during the summer of 1973.
Watching it, I imagined my own tagline:
‘This woman has just hijacked a two-ton diesel truck in Prague and plowed it full-throttle into a street full of innocent bystanders… but no jury in Czechoslovakia would ever convict her!’
Ah, but they did.
Writer-directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb have crafted a compulsive, moving and shocking film out of their title character’s life and the events leading up to her capture, conviction and execution. Most importantly, their picture pulls you in so closely and deeply that it’s impossible not to feel for this lonely young woman living a life of neglect and abuse in the post-Prague-Spring world of Communist repression, one in which all of former Czech party leader Alexander Dubček’s progressive reforms were reversed with a vengeance.
The astonishing young actress Michalina Olszanska plays Hepnarová from age 13 to her death 10 years later. She manages to pull off the near-impossible task of a poker-faced intensity that forces us to look beneath the veneer and into her eyes, which alternate between shark-like death stares and deep humanity, ranging from innate intelligence, sensitivity and confusion, to pain and anger, and even, on occasion, humour. She delivers one of the great screen performances of the new millennium and it serves the superb screenplay and austere mise en scène perfectly.
Using gorgeously composed long takes, shooting in evocative monochrome (via the expert lensing of Adam Sikora of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing fame) and presenting Hepnarova’s sad tale using voice-over excerpts from her haunting journals, the filmmakers offer a compelling arms-length plea for understanding. It’s their carefully controlled, often Kubrickian observations that deliver the kind of humanity and emotional core with which the late director of Dr. Strangelove, et al, was so often not properly credited with. Control and austerity does not mean the kind of coldness many critics mistakenly attribute to such work and in contrast, can often guarantee the film’s ability to reach right into the flesh and rip our hearts out.
I, Olga Hepnarová goes even further by tearing into us and exposing our nerve endings – pulling and tugging at the raw tendrils and putting us in as much pain as humanly possible to capture the life and emotions of this young woman. The film shares her life with us and we’re placed in the eye of the storm of this woman who spent a lifetime being callously neglected by her mother (‘To commit suicide you need a strong will, my child. Something you certainly don’t have. Accept it.’), raped by her father (captured with a subtlety that’s far more horrific than any graphic depiction), numerous attempts to kill herself, incarceration in a Soviet-style snake pit of an asylum (suffering even more physical and psychological abuse) and an early adulthood of exploring her sexual identity with often very sad results.
And finally, the filmmakers present us with the visuals depicting the results of Olga’s actual words:
‘I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people… I have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose to avenge my haters. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.’
Of course we weep for her victims, but the film achieves the extraordinary by allowing us to weep for the ‘destroyed woman’ whose pain goes so undetected and neglected that her only choice seems to be the declaration of a death sentence upon a society bereft of caring.
To say the film takes a story from the 70s and makes it even more vital for our contemporary world would be an understatement. We weep for Olga Hepnarová, but we’re also placed in a position wherein we might be able to weep for those who carry out acts of violence and, in so doing, kill themselves.
Mental illness is a genuine affliction. It can result in evil actions, but the perpetrators are, more often than not, sick in mind, body and soul. Healing and caring has escaped them. I, Olga Hepnarová speaks not just for one, but all of them.
Watch the trailer: