World Cinema Wednesday: I, Olga (2016)

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AKA I, Olga Hepnarová

A black and white character study of the last woman executed in Czechoslovakia, this is a sedate and chilly film throughout, punctuated by a startling act of violence in the third act, even if viewers are spared anything TOO graphic.

Written and directed by Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, I, Olga is a film that could certainly divide audiences. On the one hand, it’s an impressive piece of work, anchored by a fantastic central performance from Michalina Olszanska. On the other hand, it could easily be dismissed as standard arthouse fare, full of shots showing the main character pondering her position in life, and one or two scenes of a strong sexual nature.

Sometimes subtle and edgy, sometimes bordering on the preposterously clichéd, the film at least remains enthralling throughout (although I am sure some will write it off as a complete bore). I also admired the fact that viewers are given a skewed motivation for the horrific crime perpetrated by Olga Hepnarová while not tying everything up in a neat bow. It’s clear that this is a woman who has struggled through a rather cold and grim life, but it’s equally clear that nobody in their right mind would go to such lengths to provide themselves with a protracted “suicide” provided by the state.

I’ve already briefly mentioned Olszanska, who really excels in the lead role. Her portrayal of the character emphasises her attempts to needle so many people around her, remaining coolly detached whenever observing the fruits of her labour, like a cross between an attention-seeking teen and Scarlett Johansson’s character in Under The Skin. Klára Melísková also does a very good job, playing a mother obviously already weary of her child, and Marika Soposká isn’t too bad as a potential love interest, although both are burdened by also having to show themselves as factors affecting the Olga’s psyche.

Kazda and Weinreb don’t exactly have an extensive list of film credits, but you wouldn’t guess that from observing the final result here. This is a well-balanced exploration of challenging subject matter. Perhaps it occupies a middle ground, alluded to in the paragraphs above, that will put off many, but it all worked perfectly for me. I’ll be very interested to see what comes next from the directors, either individually or once again working together, and I’ll certainly check out more of Olszanska’s filmography.

DIRECTOR: PETR KAZDA, TOMÁS WEINREB
WRITER: PETR KAZDA, TOMÁS WEINREB, STORY BY ROMAN CÍLEK
STARS: MICHALINA OLSZANSKA, KLÁRA MELÍSKOVÁ, MARIKA SOPOSKÁ
RUNTIME: 105 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: CZECH REPUBLIC, POLAND, SLOVAKIA, FRANCE

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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