Movie review: Family Film (Rodinný film)

A family is torn apart, a dog fends for itself, and the director proves his filmmaking chops

Review filed from the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival.


Following up on his widely hailed début, A Night Too Young (Příliš mladá noc), Slovenian-born FAMU graduate Olmo Omerzu’s sophomore feature is yet further proof this young director (he turned 30 during production) is a rising star in Central European cinema as he manages to tackle a theme as serious as the crumbling family unit with a mixture of short, powerful revelations in a snow-swept Prague and lyrical, wordless snippets on a tropical island in the eastern Indian Ocean.


In a deceptively simple but well-chosen opening scene, which takes place inside the family sedan of Igor Kubín (Karel Roden), his son and daughter are watching a nature documentary on the television embedded on the back of his headrest. Igor’s wife, Irena (Vanda Hybnerová), asks him whether he took their sheepdog, a Border Collie named Otto, to get vaccinated. Igor sheepishly admits he forgot. In the meantime on the documentary, a frog unceremoniously meets its end.


Igor and Irena leave for a yachting expedition around Christmas Island and expect everything back home to go well as they will keep in touch with their teenage son, Erik (Daniel Kadlec), and his elder sister, Anna (Jenovéfa Boková), via Skype. But when the cat’s away, the mice will play, and they do so no sooner than on the way back from dropping their parents off at the airport, when they pick up Anna’s friend Kristýna (Eliška Křenková).


Omerzu is cautious to show too much too soon, and he uses small but striking hints that things are headed south, for example by ending many a scene on a slightly awkward facial expression that firmly indicates the situations are not as innocent as they seem at first. The day after his parents leave, Erik arrives back home to find the doors to the building’s elevator closing shut, and we briefly spot Kristýna, stark-naked, inside.


She later explains to him that she plays this game because she is bored, and before long she turns her sights and her wiles on the naive Erik, whom his father had playfully advised to enjoy himself in moderation. The calculating Kristýna moves in with Anna and Erik, and even when the children’s uncle Martin eventually turns up, she stays put, sometimes snuggling up next to Erik in bed, at other times stroking his hand or licking his ear.


All the while, there are glimpses of sun-kissed beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters half a world away, where Igor and Irena are blissfully ignoring any possibility their children would get into trouble. It is only when Anna receives an unexpected phone call about her brother’s fortnight-long absence from school that she is compelled to convene a Skype conversation between her, her parents and a teacher from school. Irena wants to go home at once, but Igor insists there is nothing they can do but bide their time.


At first, it is challenging to understand what Omerzu is getting at, or why he wants to tell us this story. But everything changes in the final third, which in formal terms is also by far his most ambitious act, as all the pieces suddenly come together in a stunning contrast of wrenching heartache and serene tranquillity, as revelations about the family structure in Prague play off against scenes of perseverance in a tropical wilderness, as Otto is stranded on a deserted island.


Although there is little development in his character, the story of Otto the dog unexpectedly turns out to be one of the most impressive additions to the screenplay. His arrival on the island is a gorgeous example of Omerzu’s talents, as the camera follows the dog slowly swimming ashore, time and time again briefly disappearing from view behind the crest of the wave before emerging, snout in the air, once more. The scene will be sure to leave many a viewer breathless, thanks to the visual dynamics we are made witness to.


Other scenes with or around Otto are equally mesmerizing, from a palm tree hit by lightning to crabs scurrying surreptitiously behind the dog while it takes shelter from the rain. The film’s final scene is another astonishing triumph, and Omerzu’s decision to let it play out with barely a word of dialogue demonstrates his eye for cinematic intensity.


Family Film is a rich, satisfying experience of a minimalist story line that includes a handful of unforeseen developments, all presented with a firm hand and no desire to shock. The director is in complete control of his material, and while a few characters lack depth or motivation, the last act of the film is a wonderful display of a range of feelings, from passive aggression to love and forgiveness.