It has been a long time since a film altered my view of the world I live in. Petr Václav’s Cesta ven did just that, exposing the reality of life for the Czech Republic’s Roma community. It also made me realise, living as I do in my cosy expat bubble, that it would take a bizarre and unlikely set of circumstances for me to ever come close to the levels of poverty and hopelessness experienced by the characters in this eye-opening slice of social realism.
Working with non-professional actors, Cesta ven centres around Žaneta (Klaudia Dudová), a young Romani mother trying to make ends meet against a grim backdrop of unemployment, debt, criminality, alcoholism, prostitution, poverty and racial prejudice which forms the day-to-day reality of her embattled community within the community.
Her husband, David (David Ištok), can’t find work, owes money to the local loan shark, and is tempted by the criminal schemes of Žaneta’s older sister, Andrea (Mária Zajacová-Ferencová) and her shady brothers. Andrea works from home as a prostitute, and one of her regulars is a Czech politician, known for his anti-Roma stance. She’s visited his plush house and seen the stacks of Euros laying around, and the trio hatch the plan to bump him off and grab the loot.
Žaneta is outraged by the idea. She is fully aware of the racial stereotype that “Whiteys” have of all Romani being thieving layabouts, and is striving for an honest, decent living despite the innumerable obstacles in her way. She wants the best for her family, wants her teenage sister to get a decent education, and doggedly pursues any honest job that might be available.
In the film’s strongest sequence, Žaneta leaves David and goes to stay with her father. In just a few short scenes, Václav outlines the desperation of the Roma situation. Her father is a terminally unemployed alcoholic, her stepmother doesn’t want her in the house. Her stepbrother is an irresponsible teen with no prospects, who has got his girlfriend in the family way and plans to move her into the already overcrowded apartment. To put bread on the table they’ve also taken in a lodger, a white former convict, so his benefits can boost the communal pot.
Throughout the film, Václav explores the idea that destitution and prejudice is hereditary for the country’s Roma population. They are born into a doomed situation because of their ancestry, and prospects of change are bleak because of the entrenched hatred towards them. This comes across most strongly when Žaneta’s father says he always wanted the best for his kids, but has given up hope of helping them. “I’m useless,” he concludes, and it is heart-breaking. He says it without self pity, like it is just the way of the world.
Filmed in and around a wintry Ostrava, Cesta ven could be set Anywhere, Czech Republic. Shot cinema verite-style, Štěpán Kučera’s camera finds wisdom in the setting of paneláky, herna bars and worker’s hostels. It is shot from ground level, and the feeling is raw and immediate.
Cesta ven‘s one false note is the planned robbery of the politician’s home. Since the rest of the film is so calm and observational, this subplot feels like something from a Guy Ritchie movie.
The non-professional cast all acquit themselves brilliantly – while their performances are rough around the edges, you really get the sense that they are telling their own stories with vivacity and commitment. Ultimately, Cesta ven works so well because of Dudová. She holds the screen well, and embodies Žaneta with such fierce determination that while her circumstances are depressing, her story is always compelling.
Another writer-director might be tempted to finish with a more traditionally dramatic flourish, either crushing Žaneta completely or paying off with an unlikely life-changing reward. Václav makes the right choice, offering her slim optimism for the immediate future, but no illusions about the longer term struggle.
Cesta ven is a harrowing and rewarding film, addressing the wide ranging problems faced by the country’s Romani populace, from indifferent bureaucracy to outright hatred from their Czech neighbours. It is an important work, essential for anyone interested in one of the most shameful aspects of life in the Czech Republic.