'Vaclav Havel: Living in Freedom' ('Zivot Podle Vaclava Havla'): Montreal Review

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An unpolished but coherent bio of a complicated man.

The late Czech leader, from cradle to grave.

"I wonder if I was some kind of ... historical error," muses the late Vaclav Havel at the outset of Andrea Sedlackova's Vaclav Havel: Living in Freedom, and the director knows just what he means: She is fascinated by the unlikely career of this intellectual-turned-statesman, who appeared to change little about himself in order to play the role of president in Czechoslovakia, then the Czech Republic; and, with her subject unavailable to her now, is happy to construct her portrait using nothing more than the film and documents he left behind. Informative and enjoyable but unpolished, the doc will be most at home on small screens in English-speaking territories.

Though hardly the first film concerning Havel, this one may stand as the most newbie-friendly introduction; where Citizen Havel focused on fly-on-wall observation of his tenure as president, for instance, this one gives that period equal weight with his childhood and rise to fame as a politically outspoken playwright.

Havel was born silver spoon-style, to a family that owned, among other things, a famous resort and a film studio. But he resented elitism as a teen, and recalls to one interviewer here that as he came of age "I demanded my privileges be revoked." With Communism on the horizon, that was about to become a moot point.

He became a poet at 15, and found himself a natural leader, first with an arts-oriented group dubbed The 36ers, later with various political movements. When tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, he took to the air in covert radio broadcasts: "Shower them with your hatred," the now-famous author suggested. The new authorities responded by putting him under constant surveillance, forbidding him to travel outside the country, and eventually imprisoning him more than once.

The film is most engaged when discussing this turbulent middle-period of Havel's life, offering plenty of period material conveying the bohemian spirit of his social circle. Rather than going to interview his surviving friends and colleagues, Sedlackova relies throughout on existing materials, a decision (presumably budget-dictated) that does little harm to the straightforward narrative but keeps it from rising to a more cinematically satisfying level. The copious interviews shown with Havel himself vary widely in technical quality, but are uniform in the picture they give of a frank, thoughtful and clear-eyed intellectual. The director doesn't entirely gloss over the issues on which Havel was criticized over the years, and notes the disappointments he experienced while in office. But throughout, she finds a subject who stayed true to his most fundamental principle: It isn't enough to be guided internally by a conscience when one is surrounded by injustice; one has to go public. Whatever he believes, Havel insisted, "a man must articulate some values."

Production companies: Czech Television, ARTE, Alegria Productions

Director-Screenwriter: Andrea Sedlackova

Director of photography: David Cysar

Editor: Boris Machytka

Music: Quentin Sirjacq

No rating, 70 minutes