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KARLOVY VARY 2021 Special Screenings

Review: Zátopek


- David Ondříček’s picture opens the Karlovy Vary Film Festival but struggles to keep up the pace all the way to the finish line

Review: Zátopek
Václav Neuzil in Zátopek

The recent decision by Belarusian sprinter Krystina Timanovskaya to leave the Tokyo Olympics and seek asylum in Poland provides some contemporary resonance to David Ondříček’s Zátopek [+see also:
interview: David Ondříček
film profile
, about legendary Czechoslovak runner Emil Zátopek, which was the opening film of the 55th Karlovy Vary Film Festival. The period drama had a $5.5 million budget, features strong performances from two of the Czech Republic’s finest actors, Václav Neuzil and Martha Issová, and is epic in scope, featuring races from five different Olympic Games. With a light-entertainment tone, a classical filmmaking style and impressive recreations of Olympic stadia, it aspires to be a Czech Chariots of Fire, but like so many of the runners on show, it can’t quite make it to the finish line.

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Zátopek is shown to be a complicated, single-minded man whose athletic feats led to him becoming part of the communist regime’s propaganda machine. It’s just one lap of a film that has enough different themes and strands for a marathon-length series. The main ones are what it takes to become a winner, the ups and downs of a marriage, and life in retirement. Ondříček previously made a documentary on the runner and is something of an authority on him, but perhaps he knows too much. At times, it feels like the director can’t quite decide what film he wants to make, so he’s decided to make all of them.

It starts with Australian runner Ron Clark (James Frecheville), a multiple world record holder, collapsing before the finish line in a failed attempt to win gold at the Mexico Olympics. As part of his healing process and his desire to succeed in pursuing his own Olympic dream, he decides to visit multiple gold medallist Zátopek. It’s immediately apparent at the airport that Zátopek is a friendly guy, full of verve and sound advice. He seems to have all the life that has been drained out of the one-note Clark. Once at the crib, it turns out that, despite Zátopek’s positive comportment, it’s also a moment of crisis for him, as his wife, Dana, has penned him a leaving letter. The lack of acknowledgement of her leaving is the first sign of Zátopek’s emotional vacuum, which becomes more and more prominent as the film progresses. It’s the set-up for a movie in which Zátopek gives Clark the key to understanding the mental strength needed to be an Olympic champion, and family man Clark teaches our hero about being a good husband. However, the framing device doesn’t quite work like that; in fact, it doesn’t work at all and instead becomes cumbersome when the action moves back and forth between their conversations and critical moments in Zátopek’s life.

The Zátopek-Clark scenes feel lacklustre because the pace always seems to pick up whenever Issová is on screen. The film is called Zátopek, but it could just as well be referring to Dana instead of Emil. Dana was a great javelin thrower in her own right. Here, she is the mirror that highlights where her husband’s obsession with winning creates problems. Issová makes the most of her scenes, portraying Dana as the rock in the relationship, who knows her husband better than he does himself. She picks up on his desire not to have kids, challenging him where necessary, and understanding and being supportive when he is politically compromised. She also shows that there are many roads to a gold medal.

Zátopek was staged by Lucky Man Films (Czech Republic), Alef (Slovakia) and Azyl Production (Slovakia).

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