“Well, to be completely honest, the award’s very nice and all, but I’m only here for the gig. I was ignorant to this whole thing until just a while ago. […] I’m just amazed by this place, man. It’s so beautiful and the level of organisation of the festival – it’s quite frankly better than any other festival I’ve ever been to.”

So said my fellow New Zealand-born Australian citizen, Russell Crowe, on the opening day of the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) during an interview on the Hotel Thermal red carpet. Crowe added that he was “looking forward to getting the award – that’s gonna be nice,” while making it clear that what he was “really looking forward to” was, in fact, “rocking this town”.1


Crowe wasn’t joking. Just take a look at the headshot I’m going to assume he supplied the festival with personally, which graced one of the most prominent festival poster locations just outside the Hotel Thermal, where the limos drive up to disgorge celebrities onto the red carpet. Now ask yourself if you think this supremely earnest twit is even capable of japery, let alone of “rocking this town”.

This year’s Opening Night film was Firebrand (Karim Aïnouz), in which Alicia Vikander portrays Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife. You’d think then that the main event during the opening ceremony would be an appearance by Vikander before the film (with husband Michael Fassbender in tow, moreover), as she received the Festival President’s Award. However, before throwing to the film, there was Crowe again, called on stage to receive a Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema, whereupon he promptly doubled down on the backhandedly gracious sentiments of his red carpet interview:

“I was unaware of this film festival until very recently. And I’ve been to so many film festivals around the world that are completely disorganised and absolutely hellscapes. And this festival […] runs like clockwork. Everything’s on time, and it’s right, and I deeply appreciate that. Now, awards are very nice, and I am truly humbled that you would think of me for something like this […] However, I’m here for the gig.”2

The gig in question was the final show on a tour for his band, Indoor Garden Party.3 My account of the 57th KVIFF’s opening ceremony is from what was recorded of it; I wasn’t present in the Thermal Grand Hall to witness it live, as I and my fellow FIPRESCI jurors curiously weren’t offered seats at it but, rather, at a separate viewing of the film sans ceremony. I can, though, deliver an account of Crowe’s band’s post-Firebrand, post-Morcheeba-as-support(!) gig from first-hand experience. As I wrote for the FIPRESCI website, “Crowe belting out the words to Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ off a teleprompter before a competent backing band with a voice, even if built for purpose, not conditioned for it, doth not a rock show make.”4 Would someone please offer jobbing musician Russell Crowe some new film roles, stat!? And save us from any other festival getting the bright idea that the way to involve someone of Crowe’s movie star wattage is to humour any musical vanity project they’ve got going and have become delusionally overinvested in.

Intersections of rock and roll and cinema were prominent at this year’s KVIFF. The always highly anticipated festival trailer – in which a past winner of a Crystal Globe award, whether a domestic or international star, and typically an actor or a director, performs a skit denigrating the award in crisply shot black-and-white – was shot this year in colour and starred Johnny Depp. In his best non-ironic(?), slapsticky, Keith Richards drag, Depp shambolically enters a hotel lobby for an interview, struggling to manoeuvre a guitar case through a doorway, ostensibly on tour with a band and fresh from a rehearsal.5

Depp hadn’t actually been awarded a Crystal Globe when visiting the festival in 2021, which fact this trailer milked for awkward comedy, rendering it very unclear just what the festival’s attitude towards promoting Depp was – Depp then being the latest in a string of high-profile Hollywood guests at KVIFF whose reputations had been sullied by allegations of unseemly conduct, making them persona non grata elsewhere.

Depp might make for a more convincingly rock persona than the lumpen Crowe, but this year’s KVIFF only got the real rock and roll shot in the arm it needed when Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story (Nate Pommer and Eric Weinrib,) screened in the Thermal Grand Hall as a late addition to the program. A lively and entertaining, if formally conventional documentary about the US-based self-described “gypsy punk” band formed by Ukrainian émigré Eugene Hütz in 1999 and still led by him across an ever-evolving line-up, its unveiling was boosted no end by Hütz performing a few songs afterwards with nowt but an acoustic guitar, several shout-outs to the resilience of his Ukrainian compatriots and tonnes of authentic, caterwauling, rock star charisma. That, my friends, was rock and roll.


As alluded to above, mine was a presence at the KVIFF this year that came with official duties. I was one of six FIPRESCI jurors assigned to cover the Crystal Globe and Proxima Competitions between us – each competition being granted three jurors apiece. And while I’ve carped about missing the Opening Ceremony – inclusive this year of ice skating choreo on the Thermal Grand Hall stage, which is not known for being ice-covered, not least in the summertime – I have to say how grateful I am that major festivals like KVIFF are continuing, post-Covid-19, with FIPRESCI juries. For far too few are the avenues now for film critics to feel and actually be appreciated in the broader film cultural landscape, divorced as almost all of us are now from any realistic prospects of eking out a living as such.

My lookout was the Proxima strand, amounting to an agreeably eclectic twelve titles.

Amongst them: Kyros Papavassiliou’s Embryo Larva Butterfly, a sort of inverted Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) for the Greek Weird Wave set, in which time leaps back or forth unpredictably upon waking each morning. This understandably makes relationships and family planning difficult. Unfortunately, Embryo Rhododendron Gooseberry (or whatever) was probably realised after a draft or two too few for its narrative manoeuvrings to land with any real profundity.

Michèle Jacob’s Belgian Les enfants perdus (The Lost Children) trod similar terrain for slightly more uncanny ends, in concerning four siblings (one of them a bit spooky) finding themselves abandoned in a spooky house near some spooky woods. Proceedings do get quite spooky and a bit high-concept, but it too couldn’t ultimately deliver an ending that really landed with any impact. The kids were good, though.

Colombian director Camila Rodríguez Triana’s El canto del Auricanturi (The Song of the Auricanturi) also leant into the uncanny, but more successfully – there’s more at stake. A woman lives in peril in the jungle, aware that the local menfolk represent an existential threat to her, just as they did to her mother, whom she had previously presumed not just dispossessed but dead, and whose trauma has rendered her mute – if she’s even really there?

The Iranian Maade Tarik (Dark Matter, Karim Lakzadeh) was daring, indeed – it reflexively makes a show of its filmmakers-within-the-film daring to disavow Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. Pow! Beyond that, it’s a very slight, Nouvelle Vague-inflected caper film – most clearly a tribute to Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962) – but made with a certain lo-fi brio. Hopefully it doesn’t ultimately imperil its makers too greatly; I’m presuming they won’t be returning to Iran any time soon.

Naqqash Khalid’s In Camera takes a comedic look at the humiliations attendant upon being an actor of colour in today’s Britain, attending dispiriting audition after dispiriting audition. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to find it funnier in its fundamental unfunniness; I also wasn’t convinced by a strange baton-handing narrative device that gifted this grim plight from one aspiring actor to another and, eventually once more, to another. Something didn’t quite gel for me, even though it got its point across well. Britian’s casually racist! And classist! Of course!

Alexandru Solomon’s Arsenie. Viața de apoi (Arsenie. An Amazing Afterlife) was a curious fish, a kindred spirit of the tremendous Orlando, My Political Biography (Paul B. Preciado, 2023), a Teddy Award-winner at Berlin that also screened in KVIFF’s Horizons strand. Like Preciado’s Orlando, Arsenie consists of numerous re-castings of a figure – here, actual; in Orlando, fictional – the better to (perhaps) speak to the multiplicitous nature of truth and representation attached to those characters and their import within the narrative universes that contain them. 

Arsenie Boca was a priest and mystic persecuted by Romania’s communist regime, and was apparently considered holy by many, despite never having been canonised. Solomon and a ragtag busload of believers set out on a pilgrimage in his footsteps, re-enacting moments from his life. But… to what end? I wonder whether I’d have found this more interesting were I a person of faith, which I avowedly am not – alas?

Thomas Imbach was on a pilgrimage too, with Say God Bye – its awkward, Godard-esquely punny title appropriate, given that director Imbach was seeking Godard himself: – as he asserts in his voiceover, “I have to meet him, before it’s too late.” The dream: to encounter him at the end of his journey, whereupon Godard would hopefully then collaborate in some small measure with him. Part road movie (“on-foot movie”?), Say God Bye incorporates many snippets of Imbach’s past work – his filmmaking career dates back to the late ‘80s – positioning it in dialogue with plentiful excerpts from Godard’s. It’s a lovely film, even for one like me whose affection for Godard’s post-‘60s work has never been great, and it boasts a surprisingly moving ending.

Speaking of punny titles – in the English, at least – Émilie Brisavoine’s Maman déchire (Keeping Mum) made for tough viewing. I’m not much of a one for filmmakers subjecting themselves and familial subjects to a film-as-therapy film – oh, the curly ethical questions such practices can’t help but pose! Laying bare traumas spanning generations and picking at scabs on camera – is this the stuff of world’s best therapeutic practices? I’ve a strong notion it’s not, but Keeping Mum did pair interestingly with our eventual FIPRESCI prize winner, Olga Chajdas’ Imago. Per a statement I wrote for the Non-Statutory Awards Ceremony, Imago is:

“[A]n immersive, transportive depiction of a rudderless young woman prone to mental health episodes whose impulsivity proves a boon artistically but a challenge to tame when accommodating an unplanned pregnancy and the societal norms attendant upon it. Set in Poland’s Baltic Tricity against a backdrop of the burgeoning Solidarność movement led by local hero Lech Wałęsa, its febrile evocation of a late-‘80s post-punk scene bristles and throbs with a grimy authenticity through a perfect yoking of era-perfect sounds and restless cinematography and montage. Co-writer Lena Góra’s embodiment of her own mother in the lead role of Ela is wholeheartedly committed; the ensemble supporting her are all perfectly matched to the time-capsule narrative universe this film so compellingly conjures.”

Notwithstanding that FIPRESCI prizes commonly go against the grain of those issued by other juries at festivals, I and my fellow jurors were nonetheless surprised by what was dished out on Closing Night. The Proxima Grand Prix worth USD $15,000 went to Yoo Ji-young’s Birth (2022), a glacially slow, slow-burn relationship-dissolution drama in sore need of a lighting designer, while the USD $10,000 Proxima Special Jury Prize went to Saurav Rai’s Darjeeling-set Guras, which did contain some gorgeous jungle location cinematography, and a teasing hint of magical realism, but didn’t in the end add up to a hill of cardamom pods.

Lastly, Albert Hospodářský’s Czech/Slovak production Brutální vedro (Brutal Heat) got a special jury mention, but I couldn’t fathom why. Like a lower-fi Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011), of metaphorical implications more Anthropocene in nature than concerning mental health, it would have worked better had it jettisoned its framing device that suggested an Earthbound rogue sliver of Sun was bringing the worst out in people. The thin, After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)-esque narrative would have had more gravitas without it.

I struggled around my jury duties to catch films in the main competition, but I did take in a new Czech-Slovak title, Matěj Chlupáček’s Úsvit, which translates as “dawn” yet had as its English title We Have Never Been Modern. No matter: it was a sensitively handled drama – surprisingly so – concerned with intrigue surrounding the discovery of the discarded body of an intersex child in a factory courtyard in a Baťa-esque town (à la Zlín) circa 1937. Eliška Křenková greatly impressed in the lead role as the pregnant wife of a factory director who, by turns, proves to be rather more ruthless a captain-of-industry figure than he had at first appeared, as the tale takes turns for the queerer and queerer still.

Matter of fact, I was impressed with the number of queer titles across the program, especially relishing the midnight screening of the gleefully campy, utterly ludicrous Captain Faggotron Saves the Universe (Harvey Rabbit, 2023), which was at once supremely blasphemous and strangely respectful of certain aspects of Christianity.

Also screened: Manuel Abramovich’s aptly titled Pornomelancholía, which only really interested me after the fact, when I became curious whether the very popular Twitter account for the mildly sullen porn star protagonist, as seen in the film, existed outside of it – and lo and behold, it did,6 suddenly giving me pause to wonder whether the film I had watched had a rather richer relationship to the real world than I had first thought.

That Hirokazu Koreeda’s Queer Palm-winning Kaibutsu (Monster) turned out to be a beautiful film came as no surprise; however, that its children-centric drama has queer themes would have been a surprise, were that not scuppered by the award it was given in Cannes, which is effectively the stuff of spoilers. This nonlinear film – with shades of Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) – was too compelling and delicately crafted for that foreknowledge to ruin it, mind you.

The two boys at the centre of Giuseppe Fiorello’s Stranizza d’amuri (Fireworks) are older than the kids in Monster, but no more understood by the aggressively homophobic company they keep, whether of their age or of a generation or two older. Set in Sicily in the 1980s, and exquisitely shot – fireworks have seldom looked better on screen – well-known actor Fiorello, makes an assured debut as director, though the film’s ending is a touch abrupt, even if pointedly so.

Ira Sachs’ Passages is a marvel. It’s no surprise that it’s a terrific film – who’d expect anything less? But that Franz Rogowski’s self-absorbed filmmaker, Tomas, is so bracingly funny – and all the funnier the worse he behaves, and the bigger the holes he digs for everyone – came as quite a revelation. And that it’s such a profoundly sexy film centring bisexuality, too? A miracle!

All this aside, the real programming sensation this year was in the retrospective offering, restored to rude health after a glaring absence last year. The 11-feature-strong tribute to Yasuzô Masumura was the greatest programming coup of this festival’s last several years, with considerable praise garnered from numerous critical quarters and reliably excellent turnouts for the films, too.

Able to catch just three of the Masumuras, I was absolutely wowed by 1966’s visceral, Sino-Japanese War-set Akai Tenshi (The Red Angel). Having been set up to expect a wartime rape-revenge flick, I was confounded when Ayako Wakao’s young nurse doesn’t seek revenge for what a group of brutish young soldiers do to her; rather, she assists horrifically maimed and limbless soldiers enjoy palliative sexual relief that they are unable to deliver unto themselves after returning from the front and being hidden from society for fear that public morale could be crushed by the very sight of them. Imagining a film like this from any other filmmaker, from anywhere else in the ‘60s, is nigh-on impossible.

The other two works of his I caught, Irezumi (The Spider Tattoo, also 1966 and also starring Ayako Wakao, only this time seeking revenge for appalling wrongs done her early on) and 1962’s corporate espionage thriller, Kuro no tesuto ka (Black Test Car), were very engaging too – but The Red Angel was a clear cut above. Kudos aplenty to the retrospective’s curator, Joseph Fahim, who on top of organising this marvellous retrospective, gave excellent introductions to the screenings I attended. We’ll doubtless be hearing much more about Masumura’s re-emergence in coming years.


Many of the great joys at any given KVIFF are to be found in the accompanying program, or even more off-piste still, in the industry festivities that one might finagle, or dumb-luck their way into attending. One such joy was attending a party hosted by the (Czech) Audiovisual Producers’ Association a couple of klicks out of the centre of town, on the grounds of the 18th century manor house and former post office, Poštovní Dvůr. The invitation advised all comers to “get ready for a surrealistic garden party in any weather” – an appropriate pitch, given that Jaromír Kallista, producer of several of Jan Švankmajer’s features, was to be inducted at this event into the Czech Producers’ Hall of Fame.

Throughout the evening, guests socialising and feasting were enlivened by all manner of visitations – swooping birds and luminescent jellyfish were puppeteered into the canopies above the courtyard, while at ground level, stilt-walking, high-fashion, retro-futurist types traipsed about or rolled in and out of view in wireframe carriages.

Jellyfish, photo courtesy of Cerise Howard

The humble Kallista’s acceptance of his honour was a much more down-to-earth affair. (While Jan Švankmajer was nowhere to be seen, this sort of hoop-la really not being his thing at all.) But the occasion, inclusive eventually of a little dancefloor cavorting, was a clear personal festival highlight. Such are the things that, as best I can tell from my limited exposure to other festivals on the A-list circuit, only happen, or are only readily accessible, in Karlovy Vary.

Sure, this year’s festival could boast of high-profile guests aplenty, like a moustachioed Ewan McGregor and daughter Clara; Robin Wright; a returning Patricia Clarkson (on Crystal Globe jury duty, but still up for personally intro-ing Monica [Andrea Pallaoro, 2022], a lugubrious trans family drama she co-stars in), and Vincent Perez. And not to forget legendary local actor Daniela Kolářová, who was given a President’s Award on Closing Night for her contribution to Czech cinematography – notably, she’s already appeared in a KVIFF trailer, albeit one honouring Zdeněk Svěrák. And that’s not to overlook Christine Vachon and Celine Song, either.

But while their stars might all burn bright, they were all eclipsed by the magical appearances of giant blue jellyfish tree-hopping above a banquet in a courtyard one night on the city’s outskirts.


I’ll close with a familiar quibbling refrain, but also with word of an exciting new development.

Of the former, there was again no festival daily paper; it sadly seems to have gone the way of the Dodo. Like last year, there was a twice-published festival special addendum to the Pravo newspaper with a tiny English middle section populating newsstands about town. What a shame that there was no English translation of an interview it ran with Eduard Grečner who, at 91, is one of only very few key surviving figures of the Czechoslovak New Wave, and whose wonderful Middle Ages, Slovak village-set folk drama Drak sa vracia (Dragon’s Return, 1967) was shown in the Out of the Past strand in a new restoration. Nor was there a translation of an article on Masumura that would have been of great interest to the many anglophone festival-goers and industry figures present, too.

The first edition did, though, carry a translation of an interview with Jan Kačer, the now 86-year-old star of Evald Schorm’s Každý den odvahu (Courage for Every Day, 1964), a foundational New Wave disillusioned youth character study, also presented in a new restoration in Out of the Past.

On top of the introduction of some goats(!) this year to patrol the clifftops beneath the Hotel Thermal pool – no, really – KVIFF will have an exciting new attraction next year that I was lucky to be invited to preview. Within the Neo-Renaissance Imperial Spa building – a grand venue already partially used for functions during recent festivals – there is a brand new, and very strikingly red, multi-function concert hall designed by Petr Hájek Architekti.

Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Not only is it to be used by the Karlovy Vary Symphony Orchestra for concerts, but it’ll become a pop-up cinema of quite some grandeur during future KVIFFs as well. This’ll lend considerable heft to the festival offerings at the Grandhotel Pupp end of town, some distance from the Hotel Thermal festival centre. It’ll be intriguing to see whether this shifts the festival’s centre of gravity significantly from the Thermal hub and its shabby-chic brutalist glory.

What I do know is that I will wish to be in Karlovy Vary at the same time next year to find out – KVIFF remains an addictive festival experience, always enlivened by elements intrinsic to festival programming and peculiarly extrinsic to them as well

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
30 June – 8 July 2023
Festival website: https://www.kviff.com/en/homepage


  1. Russell Crowe, interviewed by festival broadcaster KVIFF.TV’s Ian Willoughby, “Russell Crowe: KVIFF is best festival I’ve ever attended”, KVIFF.TV, 1 July 2023.
  2. Opening Ceremony”, KVIFF.TV, 1 July 2023.
  3. Agreed, this is a silly band name, but at least it’s not “30 Odd Foot of Grunts”, per a prior musical vehicle of Crowe’s in the ‘90s and noughties.
  4. Cerise Howard, “Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, Rusty!FIPRESCI: the international federation of film critics, October 2023.
  5. 57th KVIFF Official Festival Trailer – Johnny Depp, youtube.com/watch?v=30I3kFc92JU, YouTube, 14 August 2023.
  6. Lalo Santos, @LaloOaxaca, X, October 2023.

About The Author

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Cerise Howard has been Program Director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival since May 2023. A co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque for several years now, she previously co-founded the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and was its Artistic Director from 2013-2018; she was also a co-founding member of tilde: Melbourne Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival. For five years she has been a Studio Leader at RMIT University, specialising in studios interrogating the shortcomings of the canon and incubating film festivals. She plays a mean bass guitar.

Related Posts