Burning Bush
Horící ker

Though Agnieszka Holland's latest film, Burning Bush, was originally produced and released as a TV miniseries for HBO Europe, it still meets my criteria for inclusion on this year’s list, since it was released as a feature in some countries (I saw it at the New York Film Festival in October) and runs less than 4 hours (just). It is also one of the best pictures of the year.  The fascinating historical legal drama begins in 1969 Prague when a student named Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. But the story centers on the young lawyer (Dagmar Burešová, played by the lovely Czech actress Tatiana Pauhofová) who brings an unwinnable lawsuit against the communist government on behalf of the family of the martyred activist.

Holland is best known for art house fare such as 1991’s Europa Europa and 2011’s In Darkness, but she has also directed episodes of American long-form cable dramas like The Wire and The Killing. Burning Bush feels like a seamless blend of both styles. Holland was a student in Prague when the events depicted in the film took place, and her approach to the period details feels entirely authentic without ever upstaging the story, which unfolds with the simple, just-the-facts approach of a police or legal procedural. Pauhofová and the rest of the cast create memorable characters that enable non-Czechs and viewers unfamiliar with the history to easily follow the narrative and connect with the themes. First-time screenwriter Stepan Hulik makes tangible the sense of fear and futility in which these characters lived under communist occupation. Burning Bush is never dull and never stoops to oversimplification, as so many bio-pics do. Most of Holland’s films explore how extreme forces of antagonism test the morals and ideals of different individuals, and both Jan Palach and Dagmar Burešová belong in the roster of fascinating characters (real and fictional) whose stories this filmmaker has brought to the screen.

Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Written by Stepan Hulik

With: Tatiana Pauhofová, Jaroslava Pokorná, Petr Stach, Vojtech Kotek, Patrik Dergel, Martin Huba, Igor Bares, Adrian Jastraban, Jan Budar, Ivan Trojan, Denny Ratajský, Jenovéfa Boková, David Novotný, Emma Smetana, Tatjana Medvecká, Ivana Uhlírová, Stanislav Zindulka, Michaela Procházková, Tereza Korejsová, Alois Svehlík, Miroslav Krobot, Jan Battek, Filip Benesovský, Slávek Bilský, Petr Buchácek, Jirí Bábek, and Filip Capka

Cinematography: Rafal Paradowski and Martin Strba
Editing: Pavel Hrdlicka
Music: Antoni Lazarkiewicz

Runtime: 234 min
Release Date: 27 January 2013