Political thriller, procedural, emotional drama and rousing cry for basic human rights and values, “Burning Bush” is a deep investigative look at gross abuses of power in late ‘60s communist Czechoslovakia and those that fought against it. A three-part miniseries for HBO Europe (no word yet on a U.S. airdate, but it opens theatrically this weekend in limited release), the drama chronicles real-life events that took place when Russian forces began to occupy the country.
A turning point in Czech history, the social outrage from the country's burgeoning counterculture youth manifests itself in a desperate, righteous act of protest: students vow to set themselves on fire. The first to engage in self-immolation, Jan Palach, dies in the process, but not before a communist politician slanders Palach’s name and his sacrifice for freedom. Occupied but not yet overthrown, the establishment sees this unrest as the final excuse Russian forces need to take full control of the ruling Czech government. And so driven by fear, the government looks to discredit and stamp out all further disobedience. Caught in the crosshairs is the Palach family—his mother Libuse (Jaroslava Pokorná) and her elder son Jirí (Jaroslava Pokorná)—and what unfolds is a tense, slow-burning thriller where legal and moral implications go head to head with conspiratorial forces. Engaging and rousing in its depiction of brave protest in the face of sinful injustice, “Burning Bush” also stars Tatiana Pauhofová as Dagmar Buresová, the one lawyer willing to sue the politician for libel.
And while “Burning Bush” has “Law & Order”-like segments where Dagmar and her team race against time trying to collect sufficient evidence in what will become an unjust, one-sided trial, the drama also looks at the nation-wide ramifications of Palach’s shocking act of protest. The Palach family is put through the emotional grinder, Dagmar’s family is hounded by police, and true colors of courage or cowardice soon begin to surface in all the surrounding players. The deck is stacked so hard that even one moral and upright detective decides to take his family on a long vacation, knowing his work is futile and will just be perverted for political gain.
Directed by world-renowned Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, the helmer keeps things simple as she’s been known to do for a large part of her career. The movie is well-observed, but economical and never invasively crafted—the director trusts the actors and understands that the drama’s power lies right here in this infuriating story of social injustice. Restrained and classical, when Holland does need to lean in a little emotionally, she does so by utilizing Antoni Lazarkiewicz’s spare but haunting score and the powerful and moody cinematography of Rafal Paradowski and Martin Strba.
Perhaps best known for “Europa Europa” (nominated in 1991 for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, Germany somehow not submitting it for Best Foreign Language Film), and directing Leonardo DiCaprio in the little-seen Arthur Rimbaud arthouse film “Total Eclipse” (1995), Holland has had a resurgence in recent years. Her 2011 feature "In Darkness" was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and her career has been taking off in the realm of television (she’s directed stellar episodes of “The Wire,” “Treme,” and “The Killing”). So perhaps, it’s apropos that “Burning Bush” landed at the filmmaker-friendly HBO.
However, spanning nearly four hours in length, one sometimes has to wonder if the filmmaker actually needed this much time to tell her story. Surely length is a luxury that any director would love to have, but “Burning Bush” does begin to sag a little in the middle section. That said, its final installment is as deeply affecting, solemn and galvanizing as any political drama you’ll see this year.
Co-starring Vojtech Kotek, Igor Bares, Adrian Jastraban, Ivan Trojan, Jan Budař, Martin Huba and many, many more, “Burning Bush” is full of unknown actors (at least to American audiences), but the ensemble is terrific and without a weak link (Patrik Děrgel is especially good as Dagmar’s loyal assistant, and Jaroslava Pokorná just wrenches your heart in the part of Jan’s mourning yet outraged mother).
Originally selected as the Czech entry for the Best Foreign Language Film, it was a deep shame that “Burning Bush” was disqualified less than a month later. The 20th anniversary of Palach’s death inspired a new generation of students to start protests that led to the eventual fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, alongside the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe. In a long-tail victory and co-signing of justice, Burešová eventually became the first Minister of Justice in a open Czechoslovakia. For a film that celebrates such a milestone in Czechoslovakia’s history, one that all of its countrymen can be proud of, it is perhaps just one more unforgivable crime the movie won’t be selected for the Oscars based on yet another dumb technicality. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 New York Film Festival. "Burning Bush" opens in theaters today.