“Let There Be Light” (Slovakia)
Directed by Mario Skop
One of many official entries for the Oscars’ Best International Film Award (formerly Best Foreign Language FIlm) at this year’s Chicago Film Festival, “Let There Be Light” is an excellent slice of Slovakian-village life and the ways in which European culture shifts back and forth between the extreme left and the very extreme right. Specifically depicting how the growing fear of the “other” affects both the individual and the community, via various acts of unseen, yet horrific, bullying, director Mario Skop takes us on one family’s journey as it descends down the rabbit hole of fear and violent action, within a formerly loving and close-knit community.
While it is certainly not new territory for cinematic exploration, nor is it even told in a new way, the story of Hans and his family is, nonetheless, riveting, frightening, and extremely sad. In other words, it is a good story, told well with no wasted dialogue, and features terrific performances. Production-wise, it is a small film, so there are no sweeping vistas, nor overtly artistic cinematic decisions. Instead, Skop, production designer, Pavol Andrasko, and cinematographer, Jan Melis, focus on that which matters most…the cold and stark reality of a small town, draped in winter, in Eastern Europe…and more importantl…its faces – faces that express, with very little movement, a huge spectrum of emotion. And while, ultimately, that is a better gauge of an actor’s ability, it shows tremendous restraint on the part of a director (and the expertise of the photographer) to simply let it be.
And the partners (the actors) in this instance are terrific, none better than Milan Ondrik, who plays Milan, the film’s protagonist. Laid back, joyful even, his descent in to rage and fear is incredibly subtle. And the more subtle the change, the more impactful it is for us. It’s what makes the film’s slow burn anything but dull. Zuzana Konecná, his patient yet strong wife, is equally up to the task. Daniel Fischer, and his confident smirk, is absolutely terrifying as the town’s religious leader. Frantisek Beles superbly plays the wide range of teenage emotions inherent in his role as a dutiful son with divided loyalties. Finally, Lubomír Paulovic is spot on as Ondrik’s father…a man from another time who has little room in his world-view for empathy or outward displays of love.
“Let there Be Light” is not a great film, but it is a very, very good one. Its message of xenophobic might over neighborly respect and kindness is one that is becoming more and more universal. Should we in the U.S. be fortunate enough to have access to it outside of the Festival circuit, then you should reward yourself with its craft and message.