THE BLOG
06/24/2014 02:38 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2014

Agnieszka Holland's Burning Bush

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Agnieszka Holland's Burning Bush, playing at Film Forum through Tuesday, takes place in the aftermath of Prague Spring when Russian tanks invaded and repressed the Czech revolution.

The movie, originally produced as a TV mini-series, is not a philosophical mediation like Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which was filmed by Philip Kaufman), but more a political thriller in the style of Costa-Gravas Z or Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. The title of the film comes from the biblical miracle that's echoed in the image of Jan Palach's self-immolation with the conceit lying in the fact that while the body might have died his spirit lived on.

Twenty years after his death came the Velvet Revolution of l989 in which Communism was finally overthrown. Apparently, the biblical metaphor still remains relevant. In a flagrant slap in the face to post-modernism with its promise of non-ideological drives in an equally non-Manichean universe, what was deemed unthinkable in our day and age, occurred only weeks ago in the Crimea. Burning Bush splices real life footage as well as characters into its partially fictionalized narrative and the central figure is the real life figure of Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova), a lawyer who brings libel charges against a party apparachnik named Novy (Martin Huba) who had claimed that Jan Palach's death was the result of a reactionary conspiracy. Novy claims Palach's act was intended as a circus trick, "cold fire" in which the illusion of burning is created.

The conspiracy theory derives from the notion that the Russians would be provoked into a full out annexation of Czechoslovakia if the ante were raised--something which those who preferred a veneer of autonomy to the truth of subjugation were out to forestall.The leitmotif of appearance and reality actually inserts itself from the beginning of the film when the iconic burning scene, which also recalls the Buddhist monks in Vietnam in a similar period, is reflected in a ticket kiosk and a number of other mirrored surfaces, mimicking the distancing effect the mind creates to protect itself from traumatic perception. Kafka's cockroach, an honorary citizen of Prague, makes a cameo appearance in Holland's film and he's neither killed nor freed from the box in which he's kept as food for a lizard, which is one way to view the geopolitics of Eastern Europe at the time.

Political films tend to create a black and white universe and Burning Bush is rescued from being a lives of the saints, employing the Czech penchant for ambivalence and irony, which serve to broaden its moral spectrum

{This was originally posted to Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}

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