Director: Adam Ošťádal
Writer: Adam Ošťádal
Cast: Petr Nýdrl, Naomi Chládková
Running time: 17mins
Love as dependence. In some situations, all of us face the danger of living an inauthentic life – living our lives not for ourselves but through the life of someone we love. Sometimes, the urge is so strong that the inauthentic becomes an obsession, the entire lived experience, and this appears to be the case with Samuel, the protagonist in Clearing, a sparse and desolate short narrative film from Czechia.
As writer and director, Adam Ošťádal builds a compelling portrait of Samuel (intelligently played by Petr Nýdrl) using a minimalist palette – the story line involves just one short interaction with a passer-by and a series of mobile phone conversations between Samuel and his daughter, Lena (subtly played by Naomi Chládková). We never get to see Lena – we only hear her disembodied voice. Interestingly, Ošťádal eschews what would have been the easy option to give depth to Samuel’s character by providing an interior monologue.
So, we, the audience, have to rely on the phone calls, a brief chat with a stranger and visual clues to try and gain some understanding of Samuel’s situation – this makes for pretty hard work on the part of the viewer – Clearing is not an easy ride. To compound the director’s demands on us, in a bold move, Ošťádal does not employ a musical score to tell us what we should be feeling at various parts of the narrative. Clearing is an essentially obsessive film about an obsessive personality.
We see Samuel at home in a small flat in a city – it is oppressively hot summer weather. The flat is meagrely furnished, and boxes are stacked and unpacked. Ošťádal shows us Samuel at work – cleaning the floor of the communal area of his apartment block and taking a cigarette break in a shopping mall outside the shop where he is employed – from his work ID tag we learn it is a travel agency. This is a middle-aged man with two jobs, living on their own and near the bottom of the economic pile.
Through the phone calls with Lena, we discover that Samuel is fixated on the idea of starting a new life in Greece with Lena. Visually this is enhanced by the only picture in Samuel’s apartment, save for a somewhat strange self-portrait by art student Lena, a travel poster of Greece – all vivid whites and blues and onion-domed churches. Ošťádal cleverly builds a picture through the course of the conversations of Samuel as a controller who when Lena voices her own opinions is prepared to be hostile and destructive but is then cloyingly remorseful – all this is well caught by Nýdrl and Chládková.
The idea of Samuel as someone overinvested is added to by the encounter with a stranger – whilst mopping the lobby floor he meets a young woman with a travel case who appears to be about to leave on holiday. Samuel tells the woman a story about some mundane experience he, his wife and his daughter had on holiday in (where else?) Greece – this really is someone who will not leave things alone.
Ošťádal skilfully portrays Samuel’s world, bounded by fixations on escape to Greece with Elena, and we feel we have some understanding of his take on reality. However, for reasons that are not quite clear to me, the director employs a central metaphor that runs throughout the movie – in the form of a bird in a cage. I am thinking that possibly Ošťádal believed that his uncompromising depiction of a stunted fixated personality would be a bit much for the audience to take and gave us the metaphor to hook us into the idea that the film must have a deeper, universal meaning. We see the bird in its cage in the opening sequences and we later gather from the phone calls with Lena that the bird is a gift from her to keep her (presumably divorced) father company.
The director plays a good joke on us in that the bird is named ‘Parmenides’ – presumably after the early Greek philosopher and founder of the study of metaphysics, the questioning of the meaning and nature of reality. But the avian cast member never quite lives up to this illustrious label. The credit notes describe Parmenides as a parrot. Unfortunately, while ‘parrot’ applies to a diverse 398 species, to live up to the joke, we need one of those piratical, characterful birds that, even in a cage, imposes their presence on a room. Instead, we get a more laid-back, decorous budgerigar or Quaker Parrot, and Samuel hardly interacts with the bird. With the timorous presence of Parmenides, we get the impression that the bird in the background is simply a gratuitous plot device, rather than something more substantial. Possibly, the production team had problems over cost – the more rambunctious, talkative parrot species are far more expensive commodities than budgies in the dying days of late capitalism.
The avian miscasting creates problems throughout the use of the film’s metaphor. As an illustration of and a contrast to both Samuel’s and Parmenides’ isolation and alienation – both the bird and the man are caged – we are shown a video image of two parrots on a tree branch, together, preening each other. The parrots’ exotic green, yellow, and red plumage is what hits us – we cannot fail to compare it to the restrained pale blue colours that Parmenides sports and the power of the metaphor is shattered – hey that’s not the bird we are watching in the movie. Subsequently, the continued use of the metaphor – will Samuel take flight and escape from the cage of his fixation and will Samuel give Parmenides freedom to fly away – come across as lumpen and heavy-handed.
Besides this, it should be said that throughout Clearing, the cinematography and editing are first rate – the movie looks good. The director also conjures fine performances from the actors. Nýdrl’s performance as Samuel is extremely well judged – the stand outs for me were the two cigarette breaks – not for a long time in cinema has smoking seemed so consummately unsatisfying.
At the same time, the cinematography also does a lot to draw us in. One moment that I found particularly powerful came toward the end of the movie after Samuel has made an existential choice and is absent from proceedings. The camera lingers on the places we mentally associated with Samuel, and magics up a feeling of absence and loss for the viewer, an almost instant form of nostalgia – a simple and compelling piece of cinema.
Looking beyond the parrot/non-parrot debate, with Clearing, Ošťádal has delivered a brave and in many ways uncompromising piece of work. This is a bold and innovative filmmaker, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. Although I might advise that in future, the team adheres to at least half of that old Hollywood saw – maybe it would be OK to work with children, but think seriously before you work with animals.