Eighty Letters: Berlin Review

A slow, elegiac story for auteur purists.

Screening in Berlin, Vaclav Kadrnka’s film captures a slow, mournful and, frankly, monotonous day in the life of a Czech mother.

BERLIN – Lovers of the Romanian New Wave will be delighted by Czech director Vaclav Kadrnka’s Eighty Letters. Almost everyone else will find it trying to sit through, despite a short running time. Set in 1987, the film captures a slow and mournful day in the life of a Czech mother (Zuzana Lapcikova) trying to obtain permission for herself and her adolescent son to join her husband in the U.K., where he has defected.

Based on the director’s own experiences, the film’s point of view belongs to Vacek (Martin Pavlus), who follows his mother to the hospital (for medical leave papers) and a government office to submit their tenuous request. Vacek spends most of the day sitting and waiting, staring at stairwells, the floor, an elderly man eating an egg and children in a park. When he isn’t waiting, Vacek is running, to catch up to his mother or to run errands for her.

In turn, when she hasn’t disappeared into some bureaucrat’s office, Vacek’s mother writes long, loving letters to his father. Only once or twice do we find out, in voiceover, what she’s writing, the rest of the time we hear only the sound of pen on paper.

The film’s silent, repetitive structure does convey the sense of suspended time, and of the characters’ being at the mercy of an unknown destiny. But this is too monotonous to appeal to anyone but auteur purists.

Shot on 16mm and transferred to 35mm, the film’s photography is equally monothematic. Almost every other frame has a textbook diagonal composition, and favorite subjects are sidewalks, stairs and buildings. There are also many shots of legs and feet walking or running purposefully.

The fresh-faced Pavlus has a surprisingly strong presence yet while he and Lapcikova actually look like mother and son, there doesn’t seem to be much chemistry between them.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Cinepost, Studio Bystrouska, Film Europe
Cast: Zuzana Lapcikova, Martin Pavlus, Gerald Turner, Andrea Miltner, Martin Vrtacek, Radoslav Sopik
Director/producer: Vaclav Kadrnka
Screenwriters: Jiri Soukup, Vaclav Kadrnka
Director of photography: Brano Pazitka
Production designer: Zdenek Elias
Editor: Pavel Kolaja
No rating, 74 minutes