'Let There Be Light' ('Nech je svetlo'): Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2019

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
A solid but familiar art house drama.

The latest drama from writer-director Marko Skop ('Eva Nova') stars Milan Ondrik as a worried paterfamilias in rural Slovakia.

A Slovak carpenter working in Germany realizes there might be neo-Nazi-like trouble on the horizon back home in Let There Be Light (Nech je svetlo). In his second fiction feature, Slovak writer-director Marko Skop (Eva Nova, the documentary Other Worlds) focuses on an earnest and loving paterfamilias who has been working abroad to help his family but whose prolonged absence might be one of the causes of his teenage son’s desire to hang out with the wrong crowd. Classically laid out as an art house drama and set in a small hamlet covered in immaculately white snow over Christmas, this is a respectable, well-acted and finely produced feature that highlights many issues Europeans are grappling with today. But it also always feels familiar and a little too safe, as if the ugliness it talks about can be neatly contained within a European family drama template. 

Milan Ondrik was crowned best actor at the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for his role as the father, which will help put this film on the map for festival programmers. And it looks likely Slovakia might submit this as its contender in the foreign-language Oscar race — Eva Nova was given the same honor — which could further elevate the pic’s profile.

Fortyish, jovial Milan (Ondrik) is coming home for the Christmas holidays from Germany, where he works on building sites. His relationship with his father (Lubomir Paulovic) is as frosty as the winter weather. The cranky curmudgeon thinks democracy is a terrible concept, longs for the days of the Slovak State under the Germans (read: Nazis), thinks women are “good servants, bad masters” and calls his own son “soft as butter,” making it abundantly clear for the audience why Milan tries his best to distance himself from his old man when it comes to parenting. Even so, Milan still believes he needs to pay his father some respect and forces his kids to come with him to see their grandfather, if only for a very short while. 

The motor of the action is the news that Adam (Frantisek Beles, a Slovak variation on Lucas Hedges), the eldest of the three children of Milan and his wife, Zuzka (Zuzana Konecna), was somehow involved in the bullying of a classmate that finally led to the kid’s suicide. The youngsters that seem to be the likely culprits are somewhat mysteriously referred to as “the Guard,” which seems to be a paramilitary group made up of Adam’s peers. Adam’s own involvement, and whether any coercing was involved, initially remains vague, though it’s clear from early on that the death of the boy is eating away at the troubled Adam, which in turns feeds even more into his desire to distance himself from his parents.

After the titular character from Eva Nova, Skop has created another fascinating figure full of contradictions in Milan. The laborer is an economic immigrant himself in Germany but still complains about (entirely unseen) Muslims coming to Slovakian villages to steal their jobs. He seems a caring and loving man — and works hard to be the father he himself didn’t get to have — yet he also has a cupboard full of rifles in the bedroom that mainly seems to serve as a kind of unhealthy counterbalance for his giving and caring nature. 

Indeed, Skop’s costume designer, Erika Gadus, explains everything with just one item: Milan is not too macho to wear woolen slippers at home, except they are knitted in the form of military tanks, suggesting how the warm and loving and the harsher and more macho sides somehow all live within the same person. More generally speaking, Gadus delivers standout work here throughout, like the subtle way in which each of Milan’s children wears an item of camouflage at a certain point, suggesting they have been blending into the scenery for an absent father as well as the fact that the idea of identification with the military isn’t too far-fetched in the godforsaken town where they are growing up. 

As a portrait of a man trying to be good but finding himself in a complex historical and sociopolitical environment, Let There Be Light checks all the right boxes. But Skop and Ondrik remain so even-keeled in their exploration of Milan’s life and personality that it all feels just a tad too dutiful and not quite messy enough. Knitted slippers in the shape of army vehicles can’t quite substitute for a more visceral sense of Milan’s inner turmoil as he's torn between doing everything he can to save his son and trying to protect the rest of his family, which comes under attack when the group — probably aided by a shady local priest (Daniel Fischer) — gets wind of Milan’s intentions. 

Ondrik, who played the son of the lead in Eva Nova, always convinces as the man who is called upon to remain the beacon of calm everyone else can cling to. But it is Beles, with his jumpy, light-blue eyes that express hurt and confusion, and Csongor Kassai (The Teacher), who plays the father of the boy who committed suicide, who leave the most lasting impressions. Though Kassai has just a handful of scenes, his quest to unearth the truth about his son, whether he might like that truth or not, feels even more pressing than Milan’s growing indecision about how to best protect his family.

The understated ending is effectively spine-chilling. 

Production companies: Artileria, Negativ, Rozhlas a televizia Slovenska, Ceska televize
Cast: Milan Ondrik, Frantisek Beles, Zuzana Konecna, Lubomir Paulovic, Katarina Kormanakova, Maximilian Dusanic, Daniel Fischer, Csongor Kassai, Aniko Vargova
Writer-director: Marko Skop
Producers: Marko Skop, Jan Melis, Petr Oukropec, Pavel Strnad
Director of photography: Jan Melis
Production designer: Pavol Andrasko
Costume designer: Erika Gadus
Editor: Frantisek Krahenbiel
Music: David Solar, Oskar Rozsa
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Loco Films

In Slovak, German
93 minutes