'We Are Never Alone' ('Nikdy nejsme sami'): Berlin Review

We Are Never Alone still 2 - Klaudia Dudova- H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Episodic, empathetic survey of small-town strifes.

Karel Roden leads the ensemble in Petr Vaclav's darkly humorous Czech drama.

Czech writer-director Petr Vaclav takes a bleak snapshot of his home nation in We Are Never Alone (Nikdy nejsme sami), a confidently handled peek into quietly desperate village lives. Built around a strong ensemble led by occasional Hollywood Euro-villain Karel Roden (Hellboy, The Bourne Supremacy, Blade II), it leavens its sharp-eyed scrutiny of social ills with a welcome streak of caustic, occasionally absurd humor. Given the current febrile climate in eastern and central Europe with relation to immigration and the treatment of minorities, the Czech-French co-production's topicality and restrained stylistic panache should make it a reasonably popular festival pick over the coming months following its Berlinale Forum bow, with a scattering of Paris art-cinema bookings also likely.

Two decades have passed since Vaclav made a considerable splash when his fictional feature debut Marian — dealing with the travails of a Roma boy — landed him the runner-up Silver Leopard at Locarno at the age of just 29. His London-set follow-up Parallel Worlds (2001), about a troubled middle-class marriage, caused less of a stir but did mark Vaclav's first collaboration with Roden and actress Lenka Vlasakova — who once again play an unhappily-married couple in We Are Never Alone.

Thirteen years passed before Vaclav returned to the fray with The Way Out (2014), which saw him once again dramatizing the problems facing the Czech Republic's Roma minority. The focus here was on a jobless young mother played by non-pro newcomer Klaudia Dudova, who won Best Actress at the country's equivalent of the Oscars — the picture also took Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography and Sound.

Vaclav sticks with those award-winning collaborators, including Dudova, for We Are Never Alone — which thus can be seen as summation and culmination of his oeuvre to date while also functioning as a self-contained project. Here he widens his scope to look at Roma lives within a more general social context: Dudova is Sylva, a single mother whose partner is in jail. She works at a roadside nightclub/bar of questionable repute, where she's lusted after by a burly colleague played by Zdenek Godla (apart from Sylva, the names of the characters are coyly withheld).

Sylva's would-be suitor has an unlikely admirer of his own, a middle-aged woman (Vlasakova) who sells him cigarettes at the small store owned by her father. She's married to a hot-headed hypochondriac (Roden), who forms an unhealthy friendship with a paranoid, radical-conservative prison-guard neighbor (Miroslav Hanus). The next generation, as represented by the neighboring couple's kids, have problems of their own — and Vaclav obeys the rule of cinema that dictates that if a child is seen happily handling a firearm in the first act, the same child must let off a gun with dreadful consequences in the final reel.

As such touches indicate, We Are Never Alone makes no attempt to reinvent any cinematic wheels. Vaclav occasionally lays on the irony with a heavy hand, and this kind of small-town anomie/ennui stuff has been in plentiful supply from such corners of Europe since at least the fall of the Berlin Wall. But as the wonderfully retro, 1960s-style opening titles — designed by Zdenek Mares — portend, Vaclav is capable of enlivening the material with a modicum of flair.

The action begins in black and white, abruptly switches to color at the 22-minute mark, back to monochrome at 66, then back to color at 78 for the remaining half-hour or so, for reasons presumably known at Vaclav himself. Such stylistic affectations can't detract from the film's strong suit: multi-layered performances from actors old and young. The ever-reliable Roden rants and bawls from his first appearance as a sad-sack live-wire, while neophyte Godla, who from certain angles resembles Eric Bana, excels as the bearish brute whose aggressive exterior yields a well-concealed inner sensitivity.

Production companies: Mimesis, Cinema Defacto
Cast: Karel Roden, Lenka Vlasakova, Zdenek Godla, Miroslav Hanus, Klaudia Dudova
Director / Screenwriter: Petr Vaclav
Producers: Jan Macola, Tom Dercourt, Sophie Erbs
Cinematographer: Stepan Kucera
Production designer: Milan Plesinger
Costume designer: Tereza Kucerova
Editor: Florent Mangeot
Casting: Ljubla Vaclanova
Sales: Wide, Paris
No rating, 105 minutes