The story of a Czech Olympic icon and one of the greatest runners of all time is recounted in Zátopek, an inspiring, crowd-pleasing new feature from David Ondříček that opened this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. According to presenters, Zátopek has become the very first Czech movie to open the prestigious film festival.
It’s a well-deserved recognition. While Zátopek may not offer much innovation in terms of narrative or visual presentation, this is a first-rate production in every regard, and one of the best mainstream Czech films of the past two decades.
At the center of it all is a radiant performance by star Václav Neužil as the perpetually upbeat Emil Zátopek, a deceptively complex individual who maintains his demeanor despite rocky personal relationships and a tumultuous political period in Czech history that pulls him in directions at odds with his own moral code. Only the prospect of finishing in anything less than first place threatens to bring him down.
Zátopek begins in not with the Czech athlete but his Australian friend and fellow runner Ron Clarke, played by the charismatic James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom), who visits Emil after collapsing during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. At the same time, Soviet tanks have rolled through Czechoslovakia during the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country.
Clarke visits Zátopek seeking inspiration on how to become a better runner, but Emil takes him to a Prague pub where they serve eight dumplings instead of the usual six, and opens him a beer when he asks for water (“beer is the Czech mineral water,” Emil tells him).
Zátopek may not have the nutrition or fitness secrets that will transform Clarke into a better runner, but certainly has a different outlook on life. Despite the notable absence of his wife from his Prague flat, and the turbulent political scene in 1968 Czechoslovakia, he beams positivity while Clarke struggles to come to terms with his athletic career.
Scenes with Clarke and Zátopek bookend the movie and frequently crop up during the main storyline, but the bulk of the movie is devoted to tracking Zátopek’s athletic career from a Zlín factory worker who had never taken part in a race to an Olympic hero in Helsinki.
Along the way, he meets Olympic javelin thrower and future wife Dana (Martha Issová), and clashes with manager-cum-communist minder Josef (Robert Mikluš) while trying to come to the aid of his teammates and countrymen. While Zátopek has a golden ticket to international competition thanks to his success, others have their careers sabotaged due to the political leanings of their families.
While Zátopek is a traditional rags-to-riches story in some respects, kudos to screenwriters David Ondříček, Alice Nellis, and Jan P. Muchow for staying true to runner’s athletic career and avoiding many of the pitfalls of the usual sports drama. Here, we’re not as invested in whether Zátopek will win his third gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics during a lengthy marathon sequence, but far more interested in the inner journey that he has undertaken and continues to push him past his limits.
Neužil and Issová are both a perfect fit for their roles (and both went through extensive training in their character’s respective fields), and despite being a good decade older than the athletes they portray, inject Zátopek with a youthful passion that drives the film and its themes. Frecheville, too, is perfectly-cast; his Clarke lends the film a welcome sense of practicality while potentially making it more accessible for English-speaking audiences.
Director Ondříček previously made the modern Czech cult classic Samotáři (Loners), as well as the Czech Lion-award winning detective story Ve stínu (In the Shadows), the first-rate TV docudrama Dukla 61, and a 2016 documentary on Emil Zátopek (also titled Zátopek) that likely helped this film stay true to its roots. This latest feature is a career high, and destined to win Czech Lion awards of its own and be selected as the Czech Republic’s submission to next year’s Academy Awards.
An inspirational depiction of an Olympic legend that not only faithfully recounts his story but really gets to the heart of who he was and what made him special, Zátopek is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest Czech athletes of all time.