JÁ, OLGA HEPNAROVÁ || 2016, Czech Republic / Poland / Slovakia / France || Biopic || Directed by – Petr Kazda, Tomas Weinreb / Written by – Roman Cilek, Tomas Weinreb, Petr Kazda / Produced by – Sylwester Banaszkiewicz, Vojtech Fric, Matous Heger, Petr Kazda, René Korenar, Marcin Kurek, Marian Urban, Agata Walkosz, Tomas Weinreb / Cinematography – Adam Sikora / Editing by – Vojtech Fric / Production design – Alexandr Kozak / Starring – Michalina Olszanska / Running time: 105 mins.
Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb’s feature debut is an unflinching portrayal of psychopathology that looks at the life of the last woman to be sentenced to death in Czechoslovakia, in 1975. The reason for the verdict was her premeditated crime, running over a group of people with a van two years earlier.
The directors, who also co-wrote the screenplay, study the growth of her psychological condition by taking us right inside her mind, as the personal implcations of the title I, Olga Hepnarova suggest. It does so by keeping the focus on the character development more than singular events that take place over its expansive time frame. Therefore, it is more about the impact of her growing mental instability, her alienation from society, her lesbian lifestyle in the oppressive society of Soviet Czechoslovakia and her relationship with her incredibly cold-hearted mother, who dismisses her early suicide attempt with the powerful line “to commit suicide you need a strong will, something you certainly don’t have.”
However, despite this closeness to its leading character, the viewer is also kept at a distance through a minimal use of soundscape, the lack of a music score, and through the static, black and white cinematography by Adam Sikora. This type of cinematography not only enhances the viewer’s understanding of the Hepnarova’s psychological turmoil, but also draws inspiration from the atmosphere of the Soviet Czechoslovakia of its time complete with observations on the incompetence of the instutitions. In fact, throughout the film, Hepnarova’s requests to check into a mental institution are promptly and coldly ignored.
Despite I, Olga Hepnarova being a period drama, it also feels terribly relevant to today’s world where such tragic events as school shootings and other terrorist attacks make the newspapers on a regular basis. Though the film’s atmospheric tones are heavily bleak, it occasionally embraces more appealing sexual undertones. Occasionally, the art direction and the smoky atmosphere in some of the bar sequences add a subtly exciting and trendy neo-noir vibe to the film. However, the clinical exposition of the character study never quite loses its focus, sometimes even running the risk of spoiling the film’s energy for the purpose of painting a more complete portrait. Despite some arguably outdated representation of the lesbian character as a dangerous femme fatale, Michalina Olszanska’s turn as Hepnarova convincingly dominates that vast majority of the film with her deadpan performance. There is a sexual charge and charisma about her, and she looks more like a rockstar than an Aileen Wuornos type. But it is also her unpronounced and yet evident vulnerability, her idenitity as a broken character, that make her so interesting. – 4/5