Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Burning Bush" review by Oded Aronson

In the midst of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, one man fell to his death; his body was charred from head to toe.  Thousands dispersed, unwilling to approach the body for fear of the fire.  Police discovered a note attached to his body; it stated that he would burn himself alive as a form of protest against the Russian invasion of his country.  His name was Jan Palach; he was only the first of many, the note said, and if the Russians did not immediately exit Czechoslovakia, more people from his group would burn themselves alive until they did.
The note was intentionally vague about the specifics of the group; the police were concerned about keeping the citizens of Czechoslovakia as far out of reach of this group as possible, but they had no information to go on.  After weighing various alternatives, they decided to ask Jan’s family, as they were the people police believed would have been closest to him.
The only issue was that none of them had anything to do with the group mentioned by Jan’s note.  At a loss as to how to proceed, the police then continued to conduct their investigation internally.  After a long period of time in which no progress seemed to be made, they sent an astonishing report to various newspapers.  According to the reports, Jan had never intended to kill himself; the group that he was part of had coerced him to take part in a massive demonstration by pouring himself with a newly created compound that would simulate the appearance of fire while keeping his body temperate; the reports dubbed it “cold fire”.  Unfortunately, a random terrorist had switched the chemical with a more toxic substance, and thus, Jan burned himself to death.
          Despite making these claims, the article never cited any sources other than to mention that the article was a result of the writers’ own research.  Jan’s family smelled a rat, but how would they find out the truth?  They knew Jan was too intelligent to fall for the trick detailed in the reports.  It was understandable that their fury and grief would cause them to lash out, but beyond that, an answer was officially on record; not necessarily a plausible answer, but an answer nonetheless.  How would they find anyone who would take their questions seriously? 
            Eventually they found a lawyer willing to take their case and sue for defamation of Jan’s character, but it took a lot of subtle pressure from her colleague’s daughter, who was secretly empathetic towards the Palachs.
            What follows is an excoriating critique of police states and governmental sanctions of media and news, made even more potent by the fact that this film is based on a true story.
            The acting is uniformly of high calibre.  Vilém Novy plays Martin Huba, the corrupt editor responsible for the fake story spread throughout Czechoslovakian news. Novy’s interpretation of Huba is  a man who you can tell has bad intentions from the mere look in his eye, yet his character goes through some interesting changes.  The lines on his face change into something very interesting, and the gradual morphing of his sensibilities is believable and fascinating to watch.
            As Dagmar Burešová, the lawyer who took on the case, Tatiana Pauhofová sells each scene, and makes a completely convincing and engaging figure.  Although Mrs. Burešová performed a courageous deed and did a great public service, Burning Bush doesn’t show her as a straight heroic figure.  The stress of representing such a complicated case takes a toll on her, and she often treats her family coldly because she is so frustrated at her lack of progress on the case.  Over the course of the series, after witnessing what Jan Palach’s mother goes through, she gradually becomes more appreciative of the close bond her family shares and she starts becoming a better mom as well as a fierce crusader for the rights of individuals.
            Libuše Palachová is a veteran actress, and she astonishes with a potent, depressing and emotional portrayal of Jaroslava Pokorná, Jan’s mother.  She communicates the loss and pain experienced by mothers who have outlived at least one of their own children so effectively that it caused many people in the audience to cry.  I was not the only one. 
            The best thing to be said about Burning Bush is that its nearly four hour running time feels shorter than it is.  I wanted to spend more time with these characters, and the shift from day to night outside the theatre was shocking.  Agnieszka Holland is a master director with a long filmography, and she has directed another masterpiece with Burning Bush.

Oded Aronson 

1 comment:

- said...

You screwed up. Jaroslava Pokorná portrayed Libuše Palachová, not the other way around!