Monday, March 22, 2010

Soul at Peace. (2009) Vladimír Balko

Fresh out of prison, full of hardened bitterness and snide sensitivities, Tono learns to navigate his surroundings by the reactions of old acquaintances. He returns from a five-year absence to his verdant hometown in the Slovakian wilderness, but the insular folk unabashedly choose to not forget his jaded past. They keep their distance in the same pub where once he called them friends. They have no employment for Tono, not in the local logging industry or any of the wood working jobs in town. Tono's return to freedom brings him continual hardship from a past that never goes away, until the two worst possibilities finally break him down: his wife, Mária, most likely cheated on him in his time away, and his best friend is coercing him back to the thieving life that initially landed him behind bars.

But Tono, now well past his mid-life crisis, just wants a fresh start, a decent job to grow old in, and the avoidance of another reformatory stint.

In watching Tono and all his difficulties, we root for him as the story glides along. We hope that he'll find peace, reconciliation with his neighbors, his family, his land. We hope for renewal. We hope for redemption, and we begin to see that this is something Tono is hoping for, too. As we see defeat reign down on all his new dreams, we find him desperate for a second chance with anyone. It's something he's simply not going to get, and (unfortunately for the viewer) we won't get it either. Soul at Peace smashes all our hopes for this feisty, sorry sap.

Two things angered me about the story in this gorgeously filmed production: the betrayal by a man Tono thinks is a true friend, a calloused and sad man who seems to turn on anyone for a buck -- and the film's end itself, that dark side of being at peace. That's the smashing I just mentioned.

In my search to look for the beauty in everyone, in my desire to locate the good and bad in all, I sometimes forget that some relationships are nothing but bad. They're toxic, built only for one and not the other, the stronger enabling the weaker one's withering. A relationship like this exists in Soul at Peace, but I'm glad Tono roots it out before it's too late.

The film's ending is a final layer of what has been its strongest points thus far -- the picturesque locale where the village resides, all the green and lush beauty brought to even greater sad crescendos as a pan flute and strings lull us into the images. Beauty, peace -- being at one with nature and earth -- these have all been important themes in the visuals and how the story relates. In the end, they're most important to Tono, too.

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