Movie Review: English-language Czech film 'The Prague Orgy’ only a mild indulgence

Movie Review: English-language Czech film 'The Prague Orgy’ only a mild indulgence

A controversial Canadian writer visits 1970s Prague intending to smuggle home manuscripts from an unknown Jewish author in The Prague Orgy, a new English-language adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1985 novella which director Irena Pavlásková filmed last year throughout the Czech capital, with a mostly Czech cast.

Lead Nathan Zuckerman (a stand-in for author Roth), meanwhile, is played by Canadian actor Jonas Chernick, who brings a nice sense of egotistical smugness to the character, a Western stranger who has little understanding of the world he has come into, and little intent of aiding it.

Roth’s novella The Prague Orgy served as a short epilogue to the three-novel Zuckerman Bound trilogy, which established the character as one who frequently cries oppression at the hands of a repressed society. In the Prague epilogue, meanwhile, he finds a decadent society in the thralls of a whole ‘nother form of oppression.

In Pavlásková’s film, an opening press conference attempts to establish the character that was previously intimately detailed in three full-length novels. Zuckerman is confronted for his views on sexuality and accused of being a misogynist by a couple female members of the media, and, well, that’s about it. I’m afraid some of the character’s complexities may be lost on audiences unfamiliar with the source.

Immediately thereafter, he’s visited by a fellow author and fan Zdeňek Sisovský (Jiří Havelka), who has fled communist oppression in Czechoslovakia along with his lover Eva (Klára Issová), a once-famous Prague actress who now sells dresses in New York City.

Sisovský tells Zuckerman a tale of unpublished Yiddish-language manuscripts written by his father, an unknown writer, which represent a great find for Jewish literature -- and which were, unfortunately, left behind in Prague.

Zuckerman is keen on obtaining the manuscripts - whether for personal or idealistic reasons, or a little bit of both. But not only will he have to discreetly smuggle them out of Czechoslovakia under the watchful eyes of government agents, he’ll also have to obtain them from Sisovský’s ex-wife Olga, a sex-obsessed Bohemian who stages orgies in her Prague flat and has no love lost for her ex-husband or his pursuits in the land of the free.

It seems odd that the filmmakers didn’t cast a Czech as Olga - a character so inherently Bohemian - but Russian actress Kseniya Rappoport steals The Prague Orgy from the minute she hits the screen. As the politically oppressed but sexually free Olga, she’s magnetic in her attempts to not only sleep with Zuckerman but get him to marry her and take her away - - while Zuckerman, politically free but sexually oppressed, almost rejects her as a form of protection.

Whether Zuckerman gets the manuscripts or not, I don’t think the audience has been given enough reason to care. It’s a nice anecdote but not enough to hang the plot of a feature film; the foreplay between Zuckerman and Olga easily supersedes the story in weight, while Zuckerman’s climactic encounters with Czech officials, including Miroslav Táborský’s Minister of Culture, feel almost perfunctory.

One side scene, invented for the film, does indeed justify the spy movie stakes: Zuckerman meets with a young Václav Havel, future Czech President, in a Prague pub under the watchful eyes of officials. Roth did in fact meet with Czech authors in Prague during numerous visits through the 70s, and smuggled their writing out of the Iron Curtain until he was eventually banned from the country. His true story, as evidenced by the genuinely tense Havel scene here, would have made for a more compelling narrative than what ultimately ends up on the screen in The Prague Orgy.

Still, there’s a lot to like in The Prague Orgy, including location shooting throughout a number of central Prague locations which seamlessly fill in for their 40-year-old counterparts; cinematography by Alexander Surkala nicely captures the Soviet-era feel. And along with Chernick and Rappaport, whose rapport highlights the film, there are ripe performances from the supporting cast, including Pavel Kříž as a former theater director who gives Zuckerman a tour of underground Prague that includes Olga’s high-profile orgies

The Prague Orgy has been mostly trashed by critics and audiences in the Czech Republic, and it’s a real step down for director Pavlásková, who previously made the excellent Jan Saudek biography Fotograf. Fans of Roth are likely to appreciate The Prague Orgy best, but this English-language Czech movie has a lot of insight to the Czech psyche of the 1970s, and also holds genuine appeal for foreigners interested in Prague life and Czech politics of the time.

Note: The Prague Orgy is screening in Prague in both original English-language and Czech-dubbed versions.

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