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“I am driven by instinct”

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Václav Kadrnka • Director

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- KARLOVY VARY 2017: On the occasion of the world premiere of Little Crusader at Karlovy Vary, Cineuropa met up with Czech director Václav Kadrnka to get the lowdown on his latest oeuvre

Václav Kadrnka  • Director

Czech director Václav Kadrnka studied theatre in the UK before returning to the Czech Republic to study at FAMU. He shot several student films that travelled the festival circuit and finished his critically acclaimed feature-length debut, Eighty Letters, independently in 2011. He has just unveiled his sophomore feature, Little Crusader [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Václav Kadrnka
film profile
]
, a medieval road movie, at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where Cineuropa met up with him to discuss the process of adapting a poem, the myth of the Children’s Crusade and how his latest effort relates to his debut feature.

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Cineuropa: The protagonist of Little Crusader is, unlike in Eighty Letters, a father, played by Karel Roden. Why did you opt for the perspective of this character?
Václav Kadrnka:
 The father’s perspective is suggested in the poem Svojanovský křižáček by Jaroslav Vrchlický, on which we – scriptwriters Jiří Soukup and Vojtěch Mašek and I – based the film. The film’s script editor was Marcela Pittermannová. The story unfolds with the boy, Jeník, who soon vanishes from the narrative, and the main perspective shifts to his father. I found this to be appropriate for the film’s narration, as I perceived it. I am driven by instinct. From the beginning, I was not aware of such a strong topical bond with Eighty Letters. One realises these things only in retrospect. I do not analyse beforehand; I do not speculate.

Unlike your debut, Little Crusader is not anchored in the present. You have said that the film should not be a testimony to the Middle Ages, but rather use the period as a backdrop. What intrigues you so much about this period?
Little Crusader
 is not a naturalistic film. In my opinion, naturalism does not bring anything true to a movie; it is just another filmmaking effect. The poem by Vrchlický is very naïve, pure and abstract in certain places. Its language is stylised. I knew that the Middle Ages would enable us to use a visual stylisation based mainly on reduction, suggestion and serenity. The white drapery is the leading visual element in the film. 

The film is framed by a myth about the Children’s Crusade, which is rather a niche topic. What drew you to this theme?
We used the motif of the Children’s Crusade as a metaphor, in the same way as Vrchlický uses it in his poem, only marginally. The idea that children will free the Holy Land without any weapons, only through their pure, strong faith – that commitment to faith despite all the suffering – fascinates me. Historians dispute the authenticity of the Children’s Crusade; many believed it to be a myth or a fabricated symbol of a children’s ideal. While location scouting in Brindisi, Italy, I looked for traces where part of the Children’s Crusade allegedly arrived. I could not find any trace until I came across a library where I found out that there is a church in Brindisi with a medieval chapel showing one of the boys leading the Children’s Crusade. I looked for it and found it. The mosaic is on the floor, under a pane of glass, and it really dates back to the 13th century. When I asked the local priest about the Children’s Crusade, he denied it and argued that the mosaic represents something completely different. The Children’s Crusade has to remain shrouded in mystery, and it should be perceived as a symbol of a pure and beautiful ideal. That’s also how we approached it in Little Crusader.

Adapting a poem is a rare form of cinema. How do the working methods change compared to adapting a novel, for example?
Vrchlický’s poem is epic; however, we had to move beyond the language of the poem to find the cinematic key to it, while maintaining its essence. Furthermore, I usually try to narrate a film with a bare minimum of dialogue, so I seek a way to substitute the spoken word for a filmic emblem. It really helped that the poem, broadly speaking, is a road movie.

Little Crusader is quite different from your debut, chamber film. What is your experience of shooting a medieval road movie after the autobiographical material in Eighty Letters?
Those films are similar in some respects, but I only realised that at the end. Little Crusader is also a chamber film and is also driven by the subjective perspective of the main character. It addresses the topic of an absent loved one, just like Eighty Letters did. It is perhaps more stylised and more epic. I worked more with the motif of the landscapes through which the father wanders. We created a spatial concept beforehand with painter Daniel Pitín, which was intended to reflect the father’s inner state. We searched for locations according to these sketches. Ultimately, we shot the whole film in the south of Italy, in Puglia, where the Crusades really travelled through in the Middle Ages.

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