With all due respect to troubled figure skaters from the ‘90s, if you see only one I, [Woman’s Name] movie this year, make it I, Olga Hepnarová. Like the more high-profile American movie to which it bares titular similarity, this Czech film is also based on a shocking true crime story, albeit a far more disturbing — and, unfortunately, commonplace — one: in communist Prague of 1973, 23-year-old Olga Hepnarová killed eight people when she intentionally drove a truck onto a crowded sidewalk.
The film traces Olga’s tumultuous upbringing and her few years of adulthood in the lead-up to her act of mass murder. Shot in a clinical black-and-white, and with little in the way of dialogue or exposition, it does not offer answers so much as it reflects upon Olga in the same brutal, cold manner with which she reflects upon the world, albeit without the all-consuming fury that she clings to like a security blanket.
(A line she writes in her diary, directed at no one person so much as the entire human race, sums up those qualities: “I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.”)
Young Michalina Olszańska is phenomenal in the lead role. Her natural beauty and brazenness make her initially sympathetic, though quickly enough her madness and misanthropy — as well as, ultimately, her pitiful hypocrisy — make her as repellent as she is frightening. Yet, without ever explicitly asking us for sympathy, Olszańska keeps us from fully damning her.
This is the type of movie that gets labeled “hard to watch,” but in fact it is relentlessly watchable in the way that it grasps our attention and holds it, keeping things just mysterious enough that the film never dips into easy miserabilism.
For cinephiles who prefer to have their spirits pummeled by the likes of Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke, as well as those who simply need to stare into the abyss every now and then to remind themselves what lies outside of it, I, Olga Hepnarová is as much a must-watch film, as it is a hard-to-watch one.
Availability: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes