Jan Kavka (Milan Ondrík) is a 40-year-old rescuer from a small town who has just left his wife, Eva (Dominika Morávková), in Peter Bebjak's dramatic thriller Shadowplay (Stínohra). A Czech/Slovak collaboration, Shadowplay is, in essence, "a film about a single moment that will affect your whole life" according to Bebjak. In this case, that moment evolves from the moment of Jan's separation from his wife. It's a moment in which she becomes the tragic victim of a a crime. Suddenly a widower, Jan lives with the knowledge that he indirectly caused his wife's death and failed to come to her aid at a critical moment.
Shadowplay was nominated for Warsaw Grand Prix at Warsaw International Film Festival 2022, though the film is more of a classic thriller with a storyline that is both personal for the director and yet familiar to fans of the thriller genre. While there's action to be found here, Shadowplay has more of a slow simmer to it and is more anxiety-inducing than action-packed.
For Jan, it's in the days after his wife's death that he finds refuge from his sense of guilt thanks to his friend Michal (Hynek Čermák) in a local boxing club where he also befriends Michal's protege, Greta (Leona Skleničková). As Eva's death is investigated, Inspector Dvorak (Vladimír Javorský) finds multiple inconsistencies. As things would have it, the man responsible for Eva's death, is a junkie named Robert Stransky (Jan Jankovský). Undeniably a volatile fellow, Stransky is an informant for narc investigator Mudrova (Kristýna Frejová) and under a considerable amount of protection. While Jan works to trust the system to ensure justice is served, his faith in that system wavers and leads him down a path toward retribution.
Bebjak is an award-winning Slovak director whose award-winning historical drama The Auschwitz Report was nominated for an Academy Award and whose work is often defined by a distinct atmospheric quality. Indeed, atmosphere is one of the highlights of Shadowplay. Shadowplay will play most powerfully with those who can immerse themselves in Vendula Bradáčová's storytelling and in the fates of these characters. The film's ensemble works well together with three-time Czech Lion winner Vladimír Javorský being a particular standout and elevating what could have easily been a one-note role.
DP Martin Ziaran shot the film on 16mm negative, an approach that gives the film a grittier, more realistic aura that intensifies the subject matter.
Milan Ondrik gives a quietly mesmerizing performance as Jan. It's an approach that is in some ways opposed to the more dramatic and menacing turn by Jankovský as Stransky. Jankovský practically owns the screen every time he's on it, though also weaves himself into the marvelous tapestry with the entire ensemble. It's not an easy performance and Jankovský is impressive.
As an avid moviegoer and film journalist, however, I struggled to really give myself to Shadowplay, a film that never felt less than familiar and a film that largely played out almost exactly as expected. While the story that unfolds here is a personal one, how it plays out for the most part follows the long set formula for similar retribution-themed thrillers with a couple of twists along the way.
While Shadowplay never completely won me over, for those who can appreciate character-driven thrillers this Czech/Slovak film is still a thoughtful, intriguing film that may very well be worth a watch.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic