Velvet Terrorists: Karlovy Vary Review

Terrorist bomb-makers charmingly reveal their lighter side.

This irreverent documentary meets former subversives once jailed for their opposition to Communist Czechoslovakia.

A playful documentary with fictional elements, Velvet Terrorists tracks down three middle-aged men who spent time behind bars for opposing the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Blurring the borders between fact and fiction, heroism and stupidity, Velvet Terrorists premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week, where it won the Fedeora prize chosen by European critics. It should find a warm welcome at other festivals, especially in countries with a Communist past, but the subject matter is sufficiently universal and the treatment accessible enough to engage foreign audiences too. Television sales seem the most likely outlet in overseas markets.

A joint effort among three young Slovakian directors, Velvet Terrorists is not a history lesson but a trio of contemporary portraits, which examine the strange and often comical impact of the past on the present. A key linking factor among all three subjects is their use of explosives, which appear to have been freely available even under the old hardline Czech regime -- the birthplace of Semtex, after all. The directors detonate numerous explosions on camera but soundtrack them with a cheery doorbell instead of a bang. Such is the film’s wry, irreverent, gently ironic tone.

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The first chapter features Stanislav “Stano” Kratochvil, who once tried to blow up a Communist Party viewing platform ahead of a Mayday parade, an unsuccessful prank that earned him five years in jail. Today he works in construction and spends his evenings on awkward dates with single women. His favorite trick to impress them involves lying beside a lake and setting off explosions in the water. And they say romance is dead.

Frantisek “Fero” Bednar was a more serious terrorist, joining an underground resistance group that plotted to assassinate the Czech Communist leader Gustav Husak. Now a family man with a long-suffering wife, Bednar relishes reliving his subversive past on camera, teaching his teenage son the art of bomb-making and getaway driving. He even re-stages his “fake honeymoon” on the Adriatic coast, when he tried to make contact with the CIA. All his efforts failed, but he was still sentenced to 14 years in jail.

The most fascinating psychological case study here is Vladimir Hucin, a veteran troublemaker with a long prison record, both under Communism and afterward. His crimes mainly involved blowing up propaganda billboards and spreading antigovernment leaflets from balloons, which he happily demonstrates on camera. He also recruits an alienated young woman to train under a kind of terrorism apprentice scheme, two angry outsiders against the world, their relationship fizzing with sexual tension. This compelling chapter plays like raw material for a Hollywood thriller starring look-alike James Woods as the craggy, charismatic, possibly unhinged Hucin.

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Velvet Terrorists is visually impressive, as cinematographer Martin Kollar frames bright interiors and sunny landscapes with a precise geometric eye. The arch, light-hearted tone also elevates potentially dry subject matter into a delightful triptych of vignettes. Some scenes clearly blur the line between nonfiction reportage and staged drama, such as Bednar’s fruitless attempts to contact an estranged ex-lover, or Hucin and his young trainee getting uncomfortably close during a lie-detector test. This truth-tweaking may irritate purist documentary fans, but it also adds charm and humor to these tragicomic tales of resistance, resilience and unquenchable human spirit.

Production companies: Peter Kerekes, Hypermarketfilm, Nukleusfilm
Producer: Peter Kerekes
Cast: Stanislav Kratochvil, Frantisek Bednar, Vladimir Hucin
Directors: Pavol Pekarcik, Ivan Ostrchovsky, Peter Kerekes
Cinematographer: Martin Kollar
Editors: Marek Sulik, Zuzana Cseplo
Music: Marian Curko
Sales company: Deckert Distribution
Unrated, 87 minutes