'Eva Nova': Film Review

Eva Nova -H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Vodka off a camel's back.

Director Marko Skop's character study of a former Communist-era actress and recovering alcoholic, played by the great Emilia Vasaryova, is Slovakia's foreign-language Oscar submission.

A Slovak variation of sorts on John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, the intimate character study Eva Nova chronicles the difficulties of a Communist-era actress and recovering alcoholic in her sixties as she finally tries to make amends after having sobered up again. But the juicy lead roles have practically dried up for someone her age, and even so, Eva’s long history of out-of-control behavior, fueled by her drinking binges, has soured her relationships with her former colleagues as well as her loved ones. 

Constructed almost entirely around a bravura performance from Emilia Vasaryova, the Meryl Streep of Slovak cinema and theater, this is a small but impressively handled feature-fiction debut from documentary filmmaker Marko Skop (Other Worlds). The film represents Slovakia in the foreign-language Oscar derby.

Eva Nova (Vasaryova) is hoping for a new beginning at the start of the movie, when she quits rehab for the third and hopefully last time. She’s handed a small plastic toy camel as a going-away present, with the stated wish she will “traverse deserts without ever becoming thirsty, like a camel." To continue the camel metaphor, it’s unlikely that in a film about a chronic recovering alcoholic, it won’t be easier for said camel to go through the eye of a needle than to ignore the urge to occasionally liquor up again on cheap vodka.

Besides hoping to relive even a tiny bit of her glory days as an actress — actual material of Vasaryova’s decades-long career is used to illustrate her character’s heyday — the one thing Nova hopes to accomplish now that she’s out of rehab again is to bring her family back together. That’s easier said than done, as they live far away from Bratislava, the capital, and she hasn’t spoken to her now-adult son Dodo (Milan Ondrik) for years. Eva’s childless and bitter older sister, Manka (Zofia Martisova), raised him and now still lives with Dodo, his wife Helena (Aniko Varga) and their preteen son (Alexander Lukac) and daughter (Michaela Melisova). Eva is not even aware of the latter’s existence when she shows up unannounced on their doorstep in the Slovak sticks.

Skop, who also penned the screenplay, slowly peels back the layers of hurt and regret in the Nova family, as Eva tries to reason with Manka, Dodo and, finally, Helena, and after much grumbling or even more aggressive reactions, they finally start to reveal glimpses of how she has hurt them in the past. Skop is not interested in the finer details of the revelations as such, which in any case are not major. Instead, the film explores how years of neglect and bad behavior have ballooned and festered for Eva’s family members and how they now find it practically impossible to simply forgive.

Not making it easier is the fact that Eva is only human and might relapse, and surely they must have heard all this before. But their rejection in turn might also create a sense of unworthiness and depression that could set Eva on the road to drinking again, which needs to be avoided at all costs. Most of these mechanisms are only hinted at or half-shown in Skop’s austerely laid-out screenplay, with what remains unsaid and offscreen often just as important as what Skop and Vasaryova do show.

Another complicating factor is the fact that Eva is an actress and (still) a very good one at that. We see her recite a few monologues — one in front of a bemused and bewildered-looking crowd in a home for people with Alzheimer’s — and her presence, delivery and emotional transparency is extraordinary and transporting. Taken together with a few short snippets in which we see her rehearse real-life apologies in front of a mirror, it thus begs the question to what extent an apology by an actress is heartfelt and real, and to what extent it might be a calculated and well-performed means to an end.

This question is at the heart of some of the film's best scenes, such as during a dinner conversation with an old flame of Eva's (played by the late Lubo Gregor), in which she lays on the charm real thick and viewers are left to wonder whether she’s intentionally reenacting the time when they first met. Or are her somewhat incongruous, coquettish young-girl manners instead unwittingly part of her ploy to get some kind of validation or love out of a man who used to like her before alcohol ruined both her professional and her private life?

It would be hard to imagine this film existing at all without the formidable Vasaryova at its center. The 74-year-old veteran clearly relishes the opportunity to play such a nuanced, contradictory and clearly struggling human being — who also happens to be a dozen years her junior. It’s a meaty performance but also, by definition, an often scenery-chewing one, since she’s playing an actress who often seems to be going through life playing real life as well. But in producer-cinematographer Jan Melis’ fixed medium close-ups, the cracks underneath Eva’s flaking makeup do become visible at times and these hushed moments of wounded pride and dignity help deepen the audience’s sympathy for her frequently manipulative and wrongheadedly barnstorming character.

All the other actors around Vasaryova are essentially reduced to playing second fiddle, but they do so with aplomb. Ondrik is especially impressive as her unforgiving, good-for-nothing son, whose drinking habits aren’t the only thing he seems to have inherited from his mother.

On the technical front, this is a modestly assembled production. Especially noteworthy is production and costume designer Erika Gadus’ wardrobe for Eva — black worn for days after a funeral; a fiery red number at a party at which she confronts her ex-husband’s much younger lover, also in red. Not only do the style and colors speak volumes about Eva, but also the length of time she wears certain clothes; these are important markers of the recovering alcoholic’s focus and attention or lack thereof.

Production companies: Artileria, Sirius FDilms, Filmpark Production, Rozhlas a Televizia Slovenska
Cast: Emilia Vasaryova, Milan Ondrik, Aniko Varga, Zofia Martisova, Alexander Lukac, Michaela Melisova
Writer-director: Marko Skop
Producers: Marko Skop, Jan Melis
Director of photography: Jan Melis
Production designer-dostume designer: Erika Gadus
Editors: Frantisek Krähenbiel, Marina Andree Skop
Sales: Loco Films

In Slovak

Not rated, 106 minutes