Karlovy Vary 2019 Review: Slovak drama ‘Let There Be Light’ uncovers small-town xenophobia
A well-meaning father does everything he can for his family, but circumstances beyond his control put him in an impossible moral dilemma in Let There Be Light (Budiž světlo), the second feature from Slovak writer-director Marko Škop (Eva Nová) now playing in competition at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
At the outset of Let There Be Light, Milan (impressively portrayed by Milan Ondrík) is infectiously good-natured: working construction in Germany to earn money for his three kids’ future tuition, his goofy charm is almost too much for his host family to handle.
Milan makes it back home to small-town Slovakia just in time for the Christmas holidays to be with wife Zuzka (Zuzana Konečná) and their kids, including high school-aged Adam (František Beleš), a thorn in his mother’s side due to mysterious late-night outings.
Tragedy is soon revealed when a pair of local policemen pay the family a visit to ask Adam some questions: a fellow member of his “group” has committed suicide, and his parents believe bullying or abuse to be the culprit.
That group, as MIlan soon comes to find out, isn’t just the wrong crowd: it’s a paramilitary-like sect of young adults out to protect their rural Slovak villages from the ever-present threat of Islamic extremists, organized in part by a xenophobic local Priest (Daniel Fischer).
At the heart of Let There Be Light is an impassable crossroads that MIlan inadvertently finds himself at: do nothing about the group, which already bears responsibility for one death, and he puts his son’s future in jeopardy. But do something, and he may place the rest of his family in immediate danger.
And the further MIlan delves into trying to work things out, meeting with the dead boy’s parents (Csongor Kassai and Anikó Vargová) and getting a whole lot of resentment from his own father (Ľubomír Paulovič), the further he gets from any practical solution.
Starkly told without the use of a musical score, Let There Be Light is an assuredly sure-handed sophomore feature from director Škop that tackles modern issues facing Europe with an unflinching realism. Another film might have escalated the conflict to resolve the storyline, but Škop knows that there is no end in sight here.
Holding together Let There Be Light is an especially empathetic lead performance from Ondrík: his Milan, at first presented as an irrepressibly cheerful character who just wants to do the right thing slowly has the positive outlook drained right out of him during the course of the movie.
“There’s no dick harder than life,” Milan jokes with his wife after finding himself unable to perform near the beginning of Let There Be Light. The ensuing narrative proves that all too true.