They say that hurt people hurt people. While undergoing extreme physical or psychological trauma, certain individuals are likely to inflict pain on others, either as a coping mechanism or as the result of some kind of learned or repeated behavior. It’s a difficult reality to understand and an even more difficult one to endure, as evinced in I, Olga Hepnarova, an austere biopic about the last woman sentenced to death in Czechoslovakia. Writer-directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb construct a somber character study focused on a victim of parental neglect and societal rejection, and explore the roots of an infamous mass murder with meticulous patience and pacing. The film is a rigorous and methodical experience, but as a window into a tortured life, it doesn’t offer much in the way of release or explanation. The feeling of anticlimax, while perhaps faithful to the character’s mindset and worldview, leaves questions regarding the filmmakers’ basic intentions.

Michalina Olszanka portrays the film’s title character over the course of about a decade, beginning with her attempt at suicide as a 13-year-old and ending with her execution in 1975. The character’s sense of powerlessness eventually gives way to a sort of feral agency, just as her distaste for society evolves in tandem with her homosexuality. For better or worse, Kazda and Weinreb depict these swirling emotions as specifically irreconcilable, and the film takes on an increasingly fatalistic air as Olga creeps closer to committing one of the most devastating crimes in Czechoslovakian history. As the timeline slips through adolescence and into early adulthood, we’re treated to brief scenes of scenarios involving her troubled home life; her stints in various mental hospitals where she’s bullied by fellow patients; her mercurial employment status as a truck driver, which provides only a meager living; and repeated efforts to secure regular mental health treatment amid the rocky days of late-period Czech communism. Shot in the same monochrome fashion popular among Eastern European art films, with images of barren landscapes and a minimalist sound mix, the film makes dutifully clear the suffering endured by the character during her brief and difficult life.

But where the film’s stark and unemotional style succeeds in translating Olga’s feelings of alienation, it fails to account for a narrative that’s fractured and often devoid of context or an emotional entry point. The filmmakers have an admittedly difficult task of getting the audience to sympathize with someone who arguably does not deserve any sympathy, and their solution seems to be a narrative that’s dutifully objective but annoyingly—though perhaps necessarily—incomplete. Despite the moments of passion and desire she experiences during her coming-of-age saga, Olga’s perspective remains unfailingly grim, not to mention narcissistic. She describes herself as a “sexual cripple,” but her same-sex dalliances are incredibly heated and full of athletic lovemaking, depicted in scenes that feel like black-and-white outtakes from Blue is the Warmest Color. In a confessional note she mailed to newspapers before committing mass murder, wisely copied verbatim here in the screenplay, Olga claims her status in life is “worse than that of black America,” a claim sure to make even the most empathetic viewer wince.

I, Olga Hepnarova is a film bound by contradictions. In focusing on a tragic figure whose act of obscene selfishness undoes every notion of what made her tragic in the first place, Kazda and Weinreb present the audience with a moral conundrum that even they, themselves, are unprepared to confront. The film’s objective approach and historical accuracy lends to the realism they so clearly covet, and thanks to their background as documentarians, they succeed in creating an emotional distance from the subject. But that gap proves glaring and increasingly impossible to overcome, and the film’s third act scrambles for an explanation for Olga’s heinous crime: Mental break? Act of vengeance? Emotional purge? Depressive episode? An inability to overcome that gap or address these questions speaks to film’s fixation on the banality of evil, but the filmmakers’ unwillingness to register an original thought or even an emotional response comes across as misguided, not mention cheap and a little underhanded. Ultimately, I, Olga Hepnarova isn’t much more than a fancy exploitation film.

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