Tereza Nvotová makes a great non-sensational, almost documentarian film, about a taboo subject
A few years ago, Slovak cinema got into a position where it is capable of producing fiction features which are faring well in the fierce international competition. And this streak continues in 2017, right at the beginning, with the Slovakian rising talent Tereza Nvotová, who has just unveiled her first (fiction) feature outing, Filthy, which doubled as her graduation project. Nvotová studied documentary direction, starred in films and now concludes her study of directing at Prague´s FAMU. Having already a documentary under the belt, Take it Jeasy!, and another one in the making regarding a highly controversial domestic political figure, she swapped documentary observation for fiction storytelling although the transition is not so dramatic since she made good use of her documentarist sensibilities.
The premise of Filthy is simple: a fallout of a rape incident. How to cope with such a powerful act of physical and psychological violation and harm. The first shot is a close-up of the protagonist´s face just a few moments before she receives an electroshock therapy. It´s hard to ignore the intertextual bridge between Aronofsky´s visceral and hard-to-forget Requiem for Dream. Lena, Filthy´s main character, sort of mirrors Mrs. Goldfarb as both became involuntary victims and both have to undergo institutional treatment. Mrs. Goldfarb falls victim to colorful magic pills that take her on a literal descent into madness whereas the sexual assault committed at Lena springboards her prematurely into adulthood in a drastic fashion.
Lena, a careless teenager, lives a regular life as any of her peers do, spending time with friends, dancing in a nightclub or at school. However, her family situation differs a bit from those of her friends. She has a handicapped brother who is a bit aggressive and throws tantrums as a defensive mechanism against pity. For this reason and extra care needed, he remains the main focus of their parents´ attention, giving Lena more leeway to do her stuff. Judging by Lena´s inquiries to her more experienced friend, she is a virgin, though ready to challenge that status. Until the moment she gets to not only witness, but also experience the dark side of her usually charming math teacher of a heartthrob on her very own and fragile body and mind.
Nvotová signals from the beginning that she won´t be following a journey of a young girl taking justice into her hands. Disentangling from the shackles of conventions and expectations, Filthy does not purport to be a rape-revenge fantasy. On the contrary, the film harbours as little fantasy as possible. Nvotová, along with the scriptwriter, Barbora Námerová meticulously researched the topic, still somewhat taboo in the contemporary society. After the assault, the behavior of the protagonist changes and she shuts herself away worsening her mental scars.
Lena eventually ends up at a psychiatric hospital, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, in a not so therapeutic environment where it seems the help won´t be properly administered, hence the electroshock therapy ordered to suppress the memory of trauma. The director weaves several serious social subjects such as the victimization of innocent, the forlorn state of institutionalized health care and the impunity of sexual predators. Nvotová takes away the taboo of a sensitive topic with a verve, spotlighting the plight of an innocent victim and her P.T.S.D.-like syndrome, because of which she is not capable of normally functioning.
The director plunges into the shattered universe of the victim vividly and raw while depicting the institutionalized help as anything but a safe haven. Nvotová also introduces an unexpected and destabilizing dramatic device in the form of Lena´s roommate, who adamantly professes she was abused while the accusation along another claim remains disputed, up until another traumatic event that traumatizes Lena even more. The subjective perspective of the victim is thus tested, revealing why the rest of society might hesitate or even distrust the accusations of rape by somebody from the victim´s close or direct proximity.
The scenes from the psychiatric hospital look authentic and one of the reasons, besides getting all the facts right, is the engagement of actual juvenile patients, non-actors interacting with actors. Filthy is an intimate psychological drama though visually the film adheres to the social realism arrangement conventionally associated with film from Central and Eastern European cinema (Ralitza Petrova shot an exquisite piece of such cinema in Godless). Such poetics usually enhances the bleakness of the story, Filthy not being the exception, however the most intensive in this regard are scenes set inside the hospital which is way past its prime and staffed with negligent employees.
Nvotová remains in charge delivering a mature film in her first fiction outing. During the rape scene, the camera focuses mostly on the face of the protagonist mixing shock, bewilderment and disbelief. The director handles the uneasy topic non-exploitatively. Although she is unafraid to venture into riskier territory, demonstrating dark moments in the life of a rape victim, whether it is self-harm or posttraumatic bouts, severe depression, feelings of loneliness, alienation and complicated, mostly misunderstood, struggle to return back to the state that could be called normalcy.
In the last minutes of its running time, Filthy starts to grind the notorious revenge convention of confronting the perpetrator. A somewhat low-key encounter to ensure a redemption or satisfying denouement on the offender-victim front, the scene seems to be orchestrated only for the purpose of knitting up the two story strands, the main plot line and the side line of Lena´s brother, for the finale. It might as well be a relic of previous story versions since the film is formerly known as Scum thus underlining the role of a sexual predator and his comfortable life after the repulsive act of transgression (explicitly revealed in the film´s synopsis on the producer´s website saying “Filthy is a story of a sensitive girl who has to face her trauma whilst the one who caused is gaining love from all of her close ones”). The significant semantic shift to Filthy connotes the perspective and therefore the role of a victim.
Through her chosen directorial approach and concept, Filthy straddles two segments of viewers. The coming-of-age plane plays as a young adult urban drama while the dialogue is ripe with the vernacular of the young generation emulate that subculture faithfully and thus speaks to this demographic directly. The film´s inkling towards family drama extends the scope of viewership taking into account the generation of parents delivering a message of being more considerate to their offspring.
Filthy is another bit of good news for Slovak cinema, despite the fact that the director relocated to Prague and studied and works there. Besides the experienced Slovak documentary filmmakers who migrated to fiction storytelling and expanded boundaries of domestic cinema, Nvotová representing the upcoming generation indicates a positive shift that has already begun in the neighboring country, Czech Republic (the glowing example from last year being I, Olga). The tendency to step out of the shadow of own provinciality in favor of veering to the standard of European arthouse fare. A definitively good sign for the director and domestic film scene.