Summed up in a paragraph, the plot sounds melodramatic and exaggerated. Strangely enough, this isn’t how it comes across in the film. We find ourselves in a desolate area of provincial Czechia, consisting of a carriage way, a prison, a brothel, a small shop, a petrol station, and a host of run-down houses and tower blocks inhabited by members of the Roma community. For anyone who’s managed to look beyond the gloss of Prague tourism, this is a realistic depiction of what neglected parts of the country look like.
Equally, it’s a realistic portrayal of its inhabitants: vulnerable people, abusing and abused, without prospects and drowning in a world of violence, yearning for better times – which often happen to be the communist era. What makes these characters and their demise even more difficult to watch is that, no matter how terribly they may be treating others, each of them can be related to in their sense of desperation: just as in real life, there’s no good or bad – it’s a grey zone, depending on where you stand.
We Are Never Alone is brilliant in creating psychological portraits that will keep haunting you for days, explored with a cinematography that seamlessly moves between monochromatic and colour scenes, and sounds that rely on everyday noises rather than actual music. Václav goes beyond a narrow focus on individual lives and lets us interrogate much wider questions through his characters.
Most importantly, issues of Czech national identity crop up again and again, revising the cosy pub culture and groundedness so often celebrated as ‘typically Czech’ in films and literature, and showing us a decidedly post-truth moment: the political establishment is hated and distrusted, as are foreigners and anyone not deemed ‘morally acceptable’. The male characters yearn for a ‘strong man’ to lead their cause – all too reminiscent of the current move to the right in Central Europe and beyond. Towards the end, the prison guard even goes so far as to write a manifesto of a new law, declaring the necessity for a militia that could start a ‘purgatorial fire’ against all evil – including the government.
This need for guidance is closely related to a tormented masculinity. All the male characters feel insecure, but compensate for this helplessness with macho-behaviour that often degenerates from vocal misogyny to mental and physical abuse and rape. The female characters, on the other hand, are not as sensitively drawn, but this distance adds a sense of agency: while the men become ever-more psychotic, the women come out more resilient, and, however desperate their situation may seem, there’s a sense that they’ll be able to move on. The women also show incredible strength in the way they take responsibility for their children, which the men fail to do completely. Despite the suffering and suicidal thoughts haunting them, we get the feeling that the women will make it in the end, while the men crumble.
There’s no way round it: what We Are Never Alone shows us is terrible. But no matter how difficult it is at times to keep watching – during moments of brutal suspense and impending violence – this is also one of the best films of the Made in Prague Film Festival. For anyone wanting to catch a glimpse outside the bubble of privilege, Václav’s film is the one: painful, hopeless and in a downward spiral – the flipside of our time.
We Are Never Alone + Q&A with director Petr Václav can be seen on Wednesday 30 November (20:30) at the Barbican Centre in collaboration with The New Social, as part of the Made in Prague Festival 2016, organised by the Czech Centre, London.