'The Way Out' ('Cesta ven'): Film Review

A decently acted and told drama that, much like the lives it depicts, lacks any kind of wow factor.

This third feature of France-based Czech director Petr Vaclav premiered in the ACID sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival.

CANNES -- A Roma woman in Czech Republic tries to keep her head above water in The Way Out (Cesta Ven), the sophomore feature of Czech, France-based director Petr Vaclac. A gritty, verite-like story of fighting both the perceived and real ills of the Roma community in Central Europe as experienced by somebody from within that community, The Way Out tries to paint a more complex picture of the daily struggle to survive and better one’s station but isn’t particularly helped by a story that lacks any kind of heart-wrenching drama or cinematic panache. Still, this low-budget item should be a welcome addition to festival slates after its world premiere in the ACID sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival.

Zenita (Klaudia Dudova) lives together with her chronically unemployed partner, David (David Istok), as well as her teenage sister, the oddly named Cuckoo (Sara Makulova), and Zenita and David’s toddler, Sara. Zenita does some irregular cleaning work and keeps trying to find regular employment, which proves practically impossible given the attitude and prejudice of the Czechs toward people of Roma extraction and which is made even more difficult by the fact Zenita has no experience or schooling, which means she finds herself in something of a Catch-22, as she herself explains -- though not quite in those terms -- to a stern HR woman who pretends to be helpful by suggesting she checks whether she can get a job at the workshop for disabled people next door.

It’s thus difficult for the family to make ends meet and David’s involvement in some fishy affairs -- that have left him indebted to some local heavies who aren’t afraid of physical violence -- only make matters worse and exasperate Zenita, who doesn’t want her family to be involved in criminality, very much aware that it is already hard enough for them to find work without conforming to all the stereotypes that "whiteys" have of Roma people.

Vaclac follows his characters as they go about their daily business, filming much of the interactions in a fly-on-the-wall style that betrays his background in documentary before making the 1996 feature film, Marian, also with a Roma protagonist. An early scene at a doctor’s cabinet fills in audiences on Zenita’s backstory -- abortions at ages 15, 17 and 19, a raging alcoholic for a father, a mother who died at age 28 because her family put a spell on her -- while the countless interactions with possible employers and people from the welfare office have a repetitive regularity that hammers home the point that Zenita’s attempts at bettering her and her family’s life are stonewalled at every turn.

But Vaclac’s decision to stick to something so life-like that The Way Out often feels like a documentary -- further reinforced by the countless, dilapidated and grim locations where the film was shot -- also means that the narrative is practically devoid of any sense of real drama that the film slowly builds towards, and at the end of the road there are no suffocating, soul-crushing dilemmas that would elevate the material from an issue-driven film to a recognizable and moving human drama about someone faced with these issues. When, late into the proceedings, there’s what feels like more than an entire reel of the film dedicated to an outbreak of bedbugs, there’s a definite sense Vaclac can’t see the forest for the trees, or, if you prefer, the issues for the insects.

Though she’s not an incompetent actress, Dudova doesn’t have the acting chops of a Marion Cotillard, who in the Dardenne brothers’ latest, Two Days, One Night, turned a series of visits of a laid-off worker begging for compassion from her former co-workers into a riveting succession of high-stakes mini dramas. Though that film too, could be described as something akin to documentary realism in terms of its style, it is the combination of a minutely constructed screenplay and a towering performance that made the film more than the sum of its parts. But both the writing and the acting of The Way Out just adequate here.

In terms of its technical assembly, Vaclac keeps things appropriately grungy. The sight of the family’s small living room, devoid of practically all its furniture when a lack of money forces them to sell what little they have, is a simple but telling image that the film could have used more of.

Production companies: Moloko Film, Ceska Televize, Cinema Defacto

Cast: Klaudia Dudova, David Istok, Sara Makulova, Maria Ferencova-Zajacova, Natalie Hlavacova

Writer-Director: Petr Vaclac

Producers: Jan Macola, Milos Lochman, Karel Chvojka, Tom Dercourt, Sophie Erbs.

Director of photography: Stepan Kucera

Production designer: Jan Pfeiffer

Costume designer: Tereza Kucerova

Editor: Florent Mangeot

Sales: Premium Films

No rating, 102 minutes