Movie review: Olga

in Cinema by

Rosy documentary about former first lady tells a lot, shows rather little

Nobody will remember Livia Klausová, and Ivana Zemanová is all but invisible — a complete unknown, hidden from view — to the general public. Perhaps not since the short-lived first ladyships of two of the first holders of the office, Charlotta Garrigue Masaryková and Hana Benešová, respectively the wives of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, have the Czech public been as enamored of a first lady as they were (and many still are) of Olga Havlová. And with good reason.

The wife of Václav Havel, last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, was an impressive figure in many respects, and although Olga, the new documentary by Miroslav Janek (he made the popular and entertaining Citizen Havel / Občan Havel in 2007), is basically a hagiography, with not a single false note in her character to be detected, it will almost certainly be of interest to a generation who saw her take to the world stage without blinking an eye at the challenge, but more importantly, without changing one bit.

Rating: **½
Directed by Miroslav Janek
With Olga Havlová and Václav Havel

The central and at times lone thought of this documentary is that Olga, as she was known to everyone, or Big Olga, remained the same person throughout her life, committed to her beliefs and never changing with the tide or the times, frank but caring, and laughing at people’s stupidity while never resorting to being mean.

The personality that takes shape in front of our eyes, and particularly as described by those who were lucky enough to be called her friends, is admirable, and it is difficult to imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to have known her. But this documentary tells more than it shows, and despite a splendid assortment of privately shot footage obtained for this film, we see too little of her. However, those moments when she walks across Charles Bridge on a cold November afternoon with U.S. first lady Barbara Bush, much more reserved than her American counterpart but always upright and clearly not to be underestimated, immediately convey her consistent approach to life in general: She never set out to be important or to be treated as someone important, and she never saw herself in that light, even when she was in the company of the wife of the most powerful man in the world.

Although Olga, which had its world premiere at Prague’s One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in March, will be screened will English subtitles at theaters in the Czech Republic, the work will most likely struggle to find a receptive audience unless the viewers are already familiar with its subject. The reason for this is a complete lack of helpful markers that would indicate years or even introduce the many interviewees. Except for her husband Václav, one of the only people whose relationship to her is clear is her sister, although we are not provided with a name, either.

The sister reads Olga’s own words — the director suggests this is because the sisters had very similar voices — and some of these passages are remarkable, but we can’t help but shake the desire to hear Olga’s voice instead of that of a substitute. The words, however artificial their reproduction, can be striking, as when we learn why Olga was so relaxed around everyone, since the time she was Miss Šplíchalová, during her days as co-signatory of the Charter 77 initiative and wife of fellow dissident Václav Havel, until her stint as first lady Havlová.

While the trailer is only available in Czech, the prints shown in the Czech Republic will all carry English subtitles.

The most charming scene of the film is one of conflict, in which she takes then–Finance Minister Václav Klaus to task, in a very public way in front of rolling cameras, for his words that seemed to pooh-pooh the work of charities in general, at which she took umbrage because one of her priorities as wife of the president was the launch of the Committee of Good Will, which ultimately became the Olga Havlová Foundation.

But for every scene like this one, there are many detours into the files of the State Security Police, read out by another narrator, about her activities in the 1970s and 1980s. We get a few anecdotes from her fellow dissidents about the fun the gang had despite their persecution. We get some insight into life under communism but little into the life of this down-to-earth but enigmatic woman. Even the sister we hear in voiceover, who was nearly two decades younger, says she didn’t know her all that well. To know how she felt or what she thought, we probably have to turn to her biography, whose cover is paraded onscreen every now and then.

The film never even mentions her death but instead stops around the time of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, nearly five years before her own demise, mentioned almost in passing in another scene that requires knowledge about the context to understand what is going on.

Despite its mostly messy content, the film ends with a beautiful shot, held for effect, of Olga playing with her dog. We see her playfulness and her demeanor, devoid of pretense, and then we see her make the decision to finish up and unceremoniously walk away from the dog. Everything in the previous 90 minutes is contained in that simple scene, presented in silence, and it serves as the perfect full stop.

Many will remember Olga Havlová for her strong but compassionate, dignified but straight-talking character, but this documentary contributes very little to a well-rounded appreciation of her personality and her importance.

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