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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Little Madness in the Spring
by Donald Levit

Over an awfully bad Skype connection -- laughs when print confirmed the fact -- following New York Film Festival press screening of Burning Bush/Hořici Keř, Agnieszka Holland said she herself had lived in Prague during the events pictured. The filmmaker-activist did not elaborate that, a cinema student there in those late ‘60s that shook the world, she had been arrested and detained six weeks.

Slated for HBO as a mini-series, the HBO Europe presentation relies on minimal archival footage. Nearly the entirety of the Czech television four-hour three-part miniseries is recreation of what went on during and subsequent to the four-day burn ward agony of university liberal arts student Jan Palach (Lukas Cernoch), today honored by a plaque at the spot of his self-immolation in front of the closed-for-renovation National Museum on Wenceslaus Square (actually a boulevard). On the heels of Dubček’s brief Prague Spring liberalization leading to Warsaw Pact Soviet Bloc invasion and repression, the twenty-one-year-old’s martyrdom or madness was a political football given spin by liberals and dissidents, worried Czech puppet officials, national secret police and KGB and Russian overlords.

Holland noted that one impetus for this project lay in her dismay and surprise at how easily incensed popular demands had settled back into quiet acceptance of things as they were. The previous evening, Festival The Square documented another “Spring,” an Arab one, in Cairo, still ongoing and updated and, like BB, unfolding through characters who in cases depart from view though not necessarily from this life.

As “JP” lay dying, soon followed by another, high-schooler “JZ,” and his family (brother Jiri and mother Libuse Palachova, played by Petr Stach and Jaroslava Pokorna) hurry to his physical side in the hospital, others take political-ideological sides in the battle for hearts and minds. Police Major Jires (Ivan Trojan) is assigned, then threatened, to uncover so as to slander the youth’s motives and forestall general strikes and more public suicide-protests. Coming to deplore the state’s methods in discrediting this first suicide as a mere insanity to be headed off among a rumored student Death Five, he unwillingly but surely involves Student Movement leader (Ondrej Travnicek), Jan’s girl and friend Hana (Emma Smetana) and others.

Most continuously central is lawyer Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova), solicited by Jan’s relatives in a defamation suit against Vilem Novy (Martin Huba), an MP reported to have asserted that the self-immolation had been unintentional, the result of “cold fire” duping by right-wing reactionaries. Mother of two, Dagmar is pressured by her in-turn also threatened law firm boss (Vladimir Charouz, by Adrian Jastraban), by police agents, and her doctor husband Radim’s (Jan Budar) hospital supervisors.

Even in subtitles and with a fifteen-minute intermission, Burning Bush did not make a theater audience restless. Whether this will also hold true on the small screen is another matter. Moses’ bush burned while remaining unconsumed, but will revolution consume its own children? A decade after the events in question, Czech playwright, non-Communist dissident and future republic president Vaclav Hável would echo the eighteenth century Irishman Edmund Burke on France, in writing of the “specter haunting Eastern European in the West called ‘dissent.’”

(Released by HBO; not rated by MPAA.)

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