A heartrending look at the life of Roma in the contemporary Czech Republic, Petr Václav’s Cesta ven (The Way Out) is like a punch to the gut: gritty, honest, and vividly realized, this is not a social polemic but a captivating look at a minority whose lives are hamstrung not just by local prejudice, but by ignorance within their own community.
Utilizing a cast of non-professional actors, Václav’s film focuses on young mother Žaneta (Klaudia Dudová), who lives with her boyfriend David (David Ištok), their 3-year-old daughter, and Žaneta’s teenage sister Cuckoo (Sara Makulova) in a downtrodden panelák on the outskirts of an unnamed Czech city (the film was shot in and around Ostrava).
The family struggles to get by every day. Neither Žaneta nor David works; when Žaneta applies for a position at a local textile factory, she’s turned down due to a lack of education and experience. David borrows money from a local lender, who breaks his thumb when he can’t pay him back. Žaneta is determined to find a better life, but the couple is not blameless in their situation: they fail to turn up for a monthly meeting to collect an unemployment check, and are incredulous when bureaucracy works against them.
Upstairs lives Žaneta’s sister Andrea (Mária Ferencová-Zajacová), who leads a more stable existence – by working as a prostitute. She, too, is miserable, and holds particular contempt for one of her regular customers, a politician who makes the news for his anti-Roma statements. Andrea breaks down in tears when talking to Žaneta, who visits her for financial assistance but otherwise wants nothing to do with her sister.
There is little hope for these characters. David’s eyes light up when Andrea tells him of the riches her client has in his house, and her fantasy of murdering and stealing from him. The pair – along with David’s brothers, a thug and a crackhead – stake out the politician’s house. We know this is purely delusion, and suspect that they do, too.
For me, the thematic undercurrent of Cesta ven is epitomized by Žaneta’s father, a man exhausted by life who wears his weariness across his face. He lives with a motor-mouthed woman who lambasts Žaneta when she temporarily moves in, and her teenage son, who makes his way through all of his scenes without looking up from his mobile phone. The son, devoid of any kind of responsibility, has gotten a girl pregnant, an incident he describes with an ‘aw, shucks’ attitude.
Žaneta’s father loves her, but also knows his weaknesses and his place in this life, and has been down this road too many times. The scene where he tells his daughters that he cannot help them is devastating, but also cathartic.
The experience of watching Cesta ven is frequently unnerving; we hold out hope for these characters, as they do for themselves, but writer-director Václav rarely provides any relief (during one of the film’s lighter scenes, when Žaneta goes out dancing with one of her white colleagues, the pair are both robbed.) The film ends not on a note of hope, but one of continued, unending struggle.
Cesta ven succeeds in large part due to its cast, whose naturalistic performances anchor the movie in a harsh, all-too-believable realism. Dudova’s rugged determination in the lead sets her character apart and gives us someone to root for. Ištok’s sad eyes and beat-down expression lend sympathy to a character who would otherwise be difficult to care about.
This is a quietly shattering film, perceptive and penetrating, one that neither exploits its subject nor paints them in an overly-flattering light; it isn’t always easy to watch, but acutely describes a situation that deserves more attention. The stark, superbly-composed cinematography is by Štěpán Kučera, who also lensed the director’s previous two features. The soundtrack is by Max Richter, but the film is most effective during its long, sustained silences.
Director Václav previously made the similarly-themed Marian in 1996, which told the story of an orphaned Roma child and his journey through life in foster homes; it was one of the first modern films to deal with the issue of discrimination against Roma in the Czech Republic. Eighteen years later, the director has picked up right where he left off, and little has changed. (Marian turns up late in Cesta ven, played by Milan Cifra, one of the young actors who played the boy in the earlier film.)
Václav lives and works in France, and Cesta ven was made in part with French financing (in collaboration with ČT1). It was also the first Czech film to be screened in an official section at Cannes since 1998’s Postel. Still, it failed to even crack the top 20 at the local box office. One wonders if an outsider’s perspective was needed here, or if a film like this would have been produced within the Czech Republic.