Burning Bush, Agnieszka Holland‘s four-hour mini-series for Czech television, saw its international premiere in Rotterdam in early 2013, and, dispatching to Indiewire, Celluloid Liberation Front called it “a master class in modern historical drama.” It then rolled on to Telluride and Toronto in the fall, which is when I gathered a first round of reviews. A month or so later, it screened at the New York Film Festival (round two!), and now it returns to the City for a two-week run at Film Forum. And here’s the thing. If you’re in the States but not in New York, you can watch it right now, right here.
So here’s a third round of critics telling you why you’ll want to. First up, A.O. Scott in the New York Times: “Blending fact and fiction—some of the main characters are based on real people; others are composites or archetypes—the film does a remarkably persuasive job of capturing the nightmarish and sometimes grimly comical quality of life under totalitarianism.”
At the AV Club, Mike D’Angelo sets the stage: “On January 16, 1969, about five months after Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to squash the Prague Spring, a 20-year-old student named Jan Palach poured gasoline over his head and lit himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. Letters he sent before committing this act of protest (which ultimately killed him, though he survived in agony for a few days) claimed that other ‘torches’ would follow unless certain demands—mostly related to dismantling Soviet censorship and propaganda—were met by a looming deadline.” Burning Bush “recreates the lingering fallout from Palach’s defiant self-sacrifice, detailing the ways in which it turned out to be futile in the short term but revolutionary in the long run.”
“Holland is the perfect director for this assignment on several levels,” argues Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “She excels at historical drama, including the Oscar-nominated Holocaust-era films Europa Europa and In Darkness, and has also directed for HBO on this side of the pond (three episodes of The Wire and five of Treme). Although she’s from Poland, Holland was actually a film student in Prague in 1969, and was exactly the same age as Jan Palach. All that adds up to the fact that Burning Bush is one of the richest works of her long and distinguished career, a multilayered, morally complex drama full of humor, tragedy, political thoughtfulness and sharply observed detail.”
“Burning Bush trembles with hushed urgency, with officials and apparatchiks desperate to re-sublimate the conflicts that student revolutionaries have laid bare,” writes Alan Scherstuhl in the Voice. “It’s tense, pained, unfailingly intelligent, and distinguished by the occasional visual flourish: young people rioting in the streets of Prague; a cleaning woman at a government ministry mopping blood off a grand staircase.”
“While revolution is a topic usually besotted with alpha males marching, shouting, and cracking skulls, Holland effortlessly shows the women driving the story,” notes Jordan Hoffman at the Dissolve. “The plaintiff and advocate are steadfast despite threats and warnings, but they don’t just run up against a brick wall of men. Women in tenuous positions of power are ever-present.”
Writing for Film Comment, Max Nelson notes that “the visual language of Burning Bush is rooted in the conventions of contemporary A-list American TV drama: smooth, graceful camera movements, seamless editing, sophisticated but relatively straightforward-realist color palettes and lighting schemes (‘handsome,’ one might call them, although maybe one shouldn’t). Here, as in the majority of TV dramas, the images’ expressive range is somewhat restricted—in part due to the tighter time and budgetary restrictions faced even by well-funded TV shows, but also, one feels, in order to keep the formal qualities of the image from getting in the way of the development of character or the conveyance of narrative information…. One of Burning Bush’s strengths is its refusal to entirely demonize its villains or lionize its heroes.”
“As powerfully enthralling as it is emotionally resonant, Burning Bush is Holland’s most rewarding film in years,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. See, too, Michael Atkinson‘s terrific piece here in Keyframe.
Updates, 6/12: “It must be a challenge to dramatize, on screen, the fact that a single event can have enormous political repercussions—that is, to do it without resembling one of those dreary biopics or socially relevant dramas in which exposition and explanation masquerade as dialogue.” Francine Prose for the New York Review of Books: “Holland and [screenwriter Štěphán] Hulík skillfully make us understand how many people, at how many different levels, had a stake in trying to hush up Palach’s death or, conversely, to turn it into a call to arms.”
Anthony Kaufman suggests that Burning Bush is “a sensitive and resonant account of Russian totalitarianism that should now feel all too familiar.”
Update, 6/13: “Burning Bush blends an intimate domestic drama with a thrilling Cold War procedural that takes a scalpel to the ferocious energy poured by a national security state into manipulating, threatening and—when all else fails—bludgeoning its citizens into submission.” Ella Taylor for NPR: “With her cinematographer Martin Strba, Holland has wrung an austere, steel-gray beauty from the dank Sovietism that blanketed one of the world’s most beautiful cities.”
Update, 6/14: “Holland has never prized spectacle over incident,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com. “There are no matte painting landscapes teeming with extras; no big speeches that give us the moral with a bow tied around it; no easy answers and few satisfying endings…. In the opening of Part 1, a crowbar digs into a muddy street, diverting the course of an oncoming train. A few feet away, a man strikes a match diverting the course of a nation. It doesn’t get any less epic than that.”
Update, 6/23: “Burning Bush feels like the best Lumet with infusions of Kafka,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo.