Opening the Festival last night, Vladimir Michalek's "Sekal Must Die" is quite nearly a masterpiece - albeit one that might upset the Czechs. The action takes place in the summer of 1943, in a small village that has remained untouched by the war. But they are waging a war of their own. The farmers, most of them prosperous, fear a cruel, bitter man named Sekal who, by denouncing his neighbors of crimes against the Third Reich, is given their property in reward. Born illegitimate, called a bastard his entire life, Sekal is now the richest farmer around. But he wants more, he wants it all, and will use the basest blackmail to achieve his goal. Fearing for their property, not to mention their wives, the villagers decide to kill him. But none of them has the courage to do so. And the task falls on a stranger, Jura Baran, a man on the run from the Gestapo who has become the village blacksmith. But what support can he really expect from the villagers?
Shot mostly indoors, "Sekal" has a sunny quality to it, for the interiors have that special darkness you find inside a house or a church when the sun is sweltering outside, a texture magnificently captured by cinematographer Martin Strba.. But the strength of the film lies in its yarn and in its characters - read, therefore, on his actors. Two Polish actors dominate the film: Boguslav Linda (Sekal) and Olaf Lubaszenko (Baran), with a nice cameo by (star and Fest director) Jiri Bartoska as the local priest. Linda is one of Poland's most prestigious actors - he was in Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Iron". As for Lubaszenko, who came to the world's attention in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "A Short Film About Love", one gave up counting the number of female (and other) sighs in the audience every time he was on screen. "Hot: 97%" was the result of an informal poll taken after the gala presentation. If Hollywood catches on, move over, Rutger Hauer.
Helmer Michalek, 42, has been in the business for quite a while, having served as first assistant director to the likes of Andrew Birkin on Faye Dunaway-Klaus-Maria Brandauer-starrer "The Burning Secret" and Ted Kotcheff on "The Shooter". After several documentaries, he made his feature-film debut with "Amerika", based on Franz Kafka's novel, which garnered many awards, followed in 1996 by "Forgotten Light" which got even more awards. He has a great eye, a good ear, and a super-sensitive bullshit detector. At the end of the day, he seems to say in conclusion of "Sekal", cowardice prevails - that's part and parcel of the human lot. The message comes loud and clear not only to Czechs, but to the French, Belgians, and all the countries that were invaded and occupied.
As we leave the "Sekal" party at the Imperial, Michalek decides to walk back to the VIP club at the Pupp. He asks two cops in a police car for directions. "It's too far," they reply, "Hop in, we'll drive you down." First time in my life I ever rode in a police car. Needless to say, our arrival at the Pupp was not unnoticed.
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