- These essays will inevitably contain spoilers!


'Not Angels But Angels' (1994)

- A review by Richard Harrison (2007)

Not Angels But Angels (1994) is one half, along with Body Without Soul, of director Wiktor Grodecki's documentary that culminated in Mandragora (1997), a fiction film based largely on real-life experiences. In the course of the film we meet a range of adolescants who are all male prostitutes in Prague. As the interviewer asks them about what they do their backgrounds gradually emerge, which are set against occasional cut-aways to Prague's historic buildings, suggesting an antithesis between the sordid details of the boys' everyday lives and the cultural past evident in Prague itself.

In some cases, the mise-en-scene is used to heighten the tension between situation, interviewer and subject- particularly the pictures of unclothed men which adorn some of the teenagers' walls. There is also an interview with Michael, who is from New York and therefore speaks very good English, by a graffiti-strewn wall. His comments are particularly symptomatic of the boys as a whole- they feel they have to earn money and selling themselves seems as good a way as any, especially given the prices they can get for their "services".

Not Angels But Angels is not an easy film to watch. Throughout its running time a sense of young people growing old without experiencing the true pleasures of childhood is prevalent. The young people interviewed are not the only ones to be exploited by adults seeking cheap thrills- that alone is a chastening enough thought for anyone who watches the film.

'Mandragora' (1997)
- A review essay by Richard Harrison (2007)

Mandragora is Wiktor Grodecki's uncompromising film concerning Marek (stunningly played by Miroslav Caslavka), an innocent boy from a small village, who travels to Prague and becomes involved in prostitution. It is also one of the finest European cinema films one could wish to see, with stylishly slender cinematography, actors who live their roles and a refusal to sell-out to a Hollywood-style story of redemption.

From the start, Mandragora exudes a feeling of unease; generated partly by the fluid pan that opens the film and the haunting soundtrack that accompanies it. That Marek's theft of the jacket is shown in slow-motion makes it somehow more acceptable, less a part of the vicious and very "real" world that follows it. Indeed, this incident can be seen as but a prologue to the main narrative that begins as Marek sits on the train that is to take him to Prague. Upon arrival in the capital, the lure of the neon video arcades creates a vast contrast from the openness instilled into the film by the open-air and elegant cinematography, and therefore a concern for Marek himself. This is duly realised, and the start of the teenager's suffering in Mandragora begins when he is robbed of his jacket and shoes. That he turns to Honza (an evil Pavel Skripal) (who had earlier attempted to befriend Marek in the vulgar dimness of the arcade earlier) is both ironic and also Marek's moral downfall.

Mandragora shows with verisimilitudeness believability how a naive teenager like Marek can easily be led astray- the boy's drink being spiked is the key incident that they propels the film's narrative as Marek has his first experience of male prostitution with Franta, an ugly older man like many of those in Mandragora who abuse and misuse the young men. The following scene, which takes place in Marek's home village, fills in the boy's background- an absent Mother and a Father whose violent disguises the fact that he does not understand his son, nor Marek's hatred of the prospect of following in his Father's footsteps to become a welder. Like other truants in European cinema history (such as Antoine Doinel, the protagonist of several classic Francois Truffaut films starting with Les Quatre Cents Coups , 1959), Marek wants his freedom and to make his own choices. Tellingly, Marek echoes other teenage film icons in the phrase 'you never understand me', and this lack of a close compassionate relationship is present throughout the film, and embued with a deep irony at the film's conclusion.

Throughout Mandragora , Grodecki uses several pieces of cinematographic style in a highly effective way, with the effect of efficiently communicating the meaning he wishes to forge and also to create moments of beauty per se. One of these is the dolly-in, used when Marek is seen in the club (with the off-screen singing and knowing conversation of other male prostitutes forming a stark contrast to Marek's still innocent, unspoilt nature). Another use of the camera is to move through space- rarely does Grodecki break up the locations he uses; rather, he defines them through tracking shots which enables an increased involvement in the narrative to take place. Thus, after Marek meets David (a brilliant David Svec)in another vital narrative development in the film, and Honza is hustled away by the police, Grodecki's camera roams freely to visually signify the boys' freedom. Even David recognises this, telling Marek 'this is the first day of your new life!'. That Marek and David become such friends is not surprising- Marek is ill-treated by strangers throughout Mandragora , but David represents someone who is kind, thoughtful and caring- the antithesis of everyone else Marek encounters, including, it seems, his own Father.

The trust Marek places in David is thus even more tragically undermined by the deal with Sacha, ultimately leading to Marek imitating art by posing nude with a sword as Nessun Dorma liltingly fills the air. Here, Grodecki uses the dolly-in once more, bringing us into the place of voyeur and inviting us to admire the youthful beauty of Miroslav Caslavka in this most bizarre of scenes. That is ends in pain for Marek once more is sadly how life is- sometimes there is no happy comfort-blanket to fall back on, and Grodecki shows this throughout Mandragora . When Marek returns to the hotel and attempts to slash his wrists it is a moment of reckless despair which is fortunately averted by David and the sheer physical pain of the act itself.

This scene when Marek hits rock-bottom is offset by the thoughtfulness of the next, curious because it provides a momentary focus on Prague's female prostitutes. At this point, Grodecki uses the character of Marek (who asks 'you're not afraid of AIDS?') to contrast the careless promiscuity of the reply 'we all have got it anyway'. This is the first time AIDS is seen as an overt threat or risk, and it is emphasised by the plaintive violin soundtrack and the poignancy of the shot on Marek's still slightly bloody face, which is held for several seconds. Thus, the direct empathy formed with Marek earlier in the film is heightened, and we as an audience are forced to confront the moral dilemmas faced by the very characters we have become aligned with but ultimately cannot control.

After the rather downbeat previous two scenes, Grodecki uses both wit and intrigue when David and Marek accompany the rich American (Rudy) to his plush abode. The game of pool (which includes Rudy's drink being spiked as Marek's was at the start of Mandragora ) is amusing in that the two teenagers find themselves at the mercy of older men so often that turning the tables is an apt shift of power. The robbing of Rudy is exhilarating yet panic-ridden as time goes by, but the pair's escape lightens the tension.

The journey out of Prague exemplifies the lifestyle that they have left behind, David's inability to see his Father suggesting that, perhaps, his home is the city and he cannot return to simpler pleasures. In short, the Adam-esque state of innocence cannot be recaptured: once gone, it is gone forever. Such realisations cause the emotional scene on the bridge (which again aligns the audience with the boys who seem oddly powerless and vulnerable now that they are away from their confident behaviour in Prague). The resulting scene in the club where they are assaulted by a gang of local men supports this, as well as the view taken by the men that they have come from Prague to impinge on local sexuality. Before the train journey back to Prague, there is time for the mugging of the old lady- a discomforting moment in a vast graveyard. Interestingly, classical music is used to accompany and desensitise their violence, and Grodecki uses a similar piece to dispassionately comment on the attack on the two boys when they arrive back in Prague. The attack on the old lady is not, however, severe- the way Marek and David are attacked impacts on the audience despite the classical score, leaving a genuine concern for their safety. Indeed, the final shocking shots of the scene show the pair with blood streaming down their faces.

Again, Grodecki uses a shift of mood effectively in Mandragora , as the boys visit to the corrupt filmmaker Krysa is both surreal and disturbing but does not involve the physical violence of the vicious attack upon Marek and David. Instead, the influence of American culture is present in the poster of Frank Zappa that adorns Krysa's wall and in the filmmaking itself. His directions to the four boys and his frustration at their lack of physical co-operation become ultimately amusing, thereby offsetting the earlier violence, but this mood does not last. A cautionary note is provided, however, when Marek and David have to share a scene together without a condom.

The next sequences in Mandragora provide us with insight into Marek's mind in his unintentional separation from David, and also another moment of impending disaster that Grodecki utilises at specific moments in the film. These moments (as when Marek is attacked at the start of Mandragora ) unfold in the film's defined space before an audience who are powerless to stop the events they are about to witness. Thus, as David lies on a bed in the Hotel Praha awaiting his client an ugly man enters the frame on the right. That this man is Rudy (the rich American robbed by Marek and David earlier), cause a genuine feeling of alarm for David's welfare. However, we, as the audience, are powerless to rescue him, and must watch in growing trepidation and ultimately fear at his treatment at the hands of Rudy and his henchmen.

This knowledge of what is happening to David is not shared by Marek, who takes speed (provided by Libor) and descends into a dream. The subjectivity the film gives us of this dream sequence brings us closer still to Marek as he returns to the hotel. With the frames wildly cantered (to show his disorientation and unsteady frame of mind), we watch Marek's growing angst- 'I don't want to be alone...' he blurts out, his cries for 'Dave!' proving heartrendingly sincere- any doubt of their friendship that might have existed is now gone. Dave's shocking appearance in the shower is the moment that draws Marek to suddenly revert to the present, and Libor's devastating news that David has got AIDS. Marek's reaction and the arrival of the police parallels both his Father's rage when confronted with information he does not wish to believe and also David being taken away by the police. It would be desirable that the pair be reunited, even in police custody, but this does not happen.

The closing sequences in Mandragora are permeated by a sadness and tragedy. Looking for his son, Marek's Father shows that even at his age he is still innocent (life in his small village evidently protects the morality and experience of those that live there), and he reacts with violence when offered a young prostitute by Sacha. Ironically, it is the one moment in the film when Sacha loses control of events. , but it is now too late for this to matter. Then, there is the police raid on Krysa's corrupt filmmaking operation, which culminates in Marek secretly raiding Krysa's private store.

The final moments of Mandragora are dominated by an overriding emotion that is not one of self-pity but one of poignant tragedy. With his absent friend ill with AIDS and, if Krysa's film is to be recalled, now ill with AIDS himself, Marek returns to the train station where he was robbed of his jacket upon arrival in Prague. Here, as earlier in Mandragora , the audience is once again powerless as events unfold- Marek's Father (his quest to find Marek having proved an unsuccessful one) takes the same route as does his son but in order to travel home. The heartwrenching contrast between the two is marked as his Father smokes casually to kill time as Marek attempts to kill himself. With the hauntingly sad violin soundtrack continuing, Marek's Father leans on the outside of the gents cubicle, having no way of realising that his son lies on the floor inside. An aerial shot enables us to see the bleak mise-en-scene of both males separated by the cubicle door- a symbol of the divide between them for much of the film, a divide as much one of age as of ideology or morality.

As Marek lies on the floor, his complexion turning swiftly sallow, his Father leaves Prague for his village. As his train pulls away from the platform, Grodecki's camera lingers to highlight a new arrival- another fair-haired innocent. They pause in uncertainty, then leave the station with an arbitrariness that comes of one being totally lost in a strange city. Thus, the stealing of youthful naivity has not ended but is ongoing. Like Mandragora itself, the vice has come full circle, but, unlike Mandragora , it seems it might never end.

Grodecki's film is an extraordinary experience, leaving many positive memories despite its bleak message of betrayal and abuse. It is notable for its stunning cinematography and for its refusal to conform to Hollywood-style norms even though it is a film that originates from outside that ruthlessly commercial system. Mandragora is additionally memorable for its two young stars- Miroslav Caslavka and David Svec- who provide constantly credible performances. Ultimately though, in Mandragora Wiktor Grodecki has a film that challenges, questions and above all enlightens. The world it represents is not the glossy world but very much the real one, and for that reason alone it is a movie well worth a high place in the Art cinema hierarchy.

Not Angels But Angels and Mandragora, both directed by Wiktor Grodecki, are available on DVD from Millivres Multimedia.

Millivres Multimedia website