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Int’l Critics Line: Czech Republic’s Oscar Pick ‘Zátopek’

·4-min read

Few stock scenes in the cinema stir a surge of emotion as reliably as the sight of an underdog winning a race. There is the victor’s ribcage breaking through the ribbon at the finishing line, the runner’s exhausted smile, the arms raised in victory, the quiver rising to a swell of violins and finally, in the viewer, the lump in the throat. That was where Chariots Of Fire struck gold: it actually did eat your heart out.

Zátopek, the International Feature Oscar submission from Czech Republic which was a box office smash at home, and an amiable if rather threadbare biopic of a running legend, is also at its best when our man is on the track. Czech distance runner Emil Zátopek (Vaclav Neuzil) rose from nowhere — actually, from the Bata shoe factory — to win three gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Shooting in the manner of sports coverage at the time, with a fixed camera taking in the whole field, director David Ondrícek repeatedly persuades us that just for a moment, we are watching history.

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History was, in fact, a busy place. When Zátopek started running, goaded by his manager to represent the factory in a Sunday afternoon comradely athletics meet, Czechoslovakia had been ravaged by the German invasion and was now firmly under the Russian boot. As he wins more trophies and becomes a national hero, we are made aware that the Czechoslovakian sporting association, and the government to which it answers, regard Zátopek’s athleticism as part of a greater project. He could spy for them. He can be forced to denounce dissenters. He even has a convenient weak spot: his wife Dana, a feisty Olympic javelin thrower (Martha Issova), whose father was part of the wartime government in exile. She could well be denounced in her turn.

All this is framed as flashback by a visit in 1968 (actually 1966) by Ron Clarke (James Frecheville), a younger distance runner from Australia. Clarke had his own dramatic story: he broke 17 world records, but never won gold at the Games, possibly due to some kind of psychological hurdle he couldn’t breach. In this fictional version of events, however, his story is left hanging untended and finally buried in Frecheville’s lifeless performance. Issova has plenty of bounce, but even her character is reduced to a few broad strokes. When Dana wins her own gold medal in Helsinki, only to have her husband talk over her at their joint press conference, she accuses him of not caring about her. There is a sneaking suspicion that the film doesn’t, either.

Of course, this is a film about Zátopek; the focus on him is perfectly justifiable. It is clear, however, that the writers — Ondrícek with Alice Nellis and Jan P. Muchow — want it to be a film about Zátopek the man rather than the athlete. One of the film’s most charming moments is his wedding, where he and Dana huddle under a table and swear to each other never to become boring. And he isn’t boring, but the man remains elusive. Ambitious and obsessive on the one hand, the carefree party show-off who gets up in pubs and sings with the band on the other, his complex contradictions are just about convincing only because Neuzil gives him his all; he is as committed to his performance as Zátopek clearly was to his.

Ondrícek does, however, have a great instinct for establishing settings that tell their own stories: the unkempt running track where Zátopek arrives nervously to train for the first time; the country lane in Finland where he finds himself running alone during the Olympic marathon; the cramped dormitories of the Olympic village; the self-consciously modernist Prague airport — Communism’s shop window — where he comes to meet Clarke. Ondrícek’s eye — and Stepan Kucera’s camera — has the measure and meaning of every space.

He also has an eye for detail. When Clarke first arrives in the Zátopeks’ tiny flat, a small pile of dirty dishes gives the time-honored signal that his wife has left him. Zátopek brushes over it; plodding Ron doesn’t think to ask questions and the couple’s split becomes yet another untold part of the story. But when Ron goes to sweep up a broken milk jug, he notices a word stamped into the handle: Helsinki 1952. Dana’s victory javelin has been fitted to a broom head — and she has left it behind. Nice touch. It’s just not quite enough to make Zátopek a winner.

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