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Karlovy Vary Film Festival Kicks Off With Michael Caine, ‘Zatopek’ and COVID Testing

Friday was opening night at the Czech festival, which returned after last year’s pandemic-prompted cancellation

AWARDS BEAT

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival became the latest festival to try to navigate an in-person event in these days of COVID and the Delta variant, staging a festive event on Friday night that awarded a prize to Michael Caine, screened the world premiere of “Zátopek” and put guests through a rigorous array of COVID checks and mask requirements.

The pandemic precautions were most visible in advance, when attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative PCR test to obtain special color-coded wristbands that gave them access for different periods of time; as at the Cannes Film Festival in July, authorities in the Czech Republic aren’t always accepting QR codes from U.S. vaccinations, though that may change in the coming days.

On opening night, everybody seemed to be sporting the appropriate wristbands, but another central part of the 2021 KVIFF rules — a mandate that masks be worn at all indoor screenings — was ignored by the vast majority of the people in the Thermal Hotel’s Grand Hall, where the opening ceremony took place.

In Cannes, mask rules were ignored by many at the opening ceremony and then followed during subsequent screenings, so it remains to be seen how observant audiences will be at KVIFF, a crucial international festival for the showcasing of Central and Eastern European cinema.

And as Festival President Jiří Bartoška reminded the audience during the black-tie ceremony, this is the 55th festival in the picturesque spa town 80 miles west of Prague — “like half a jubilee,” he said. It’s also the first in more than two years, with last year’s festival canceled because of the pandemic and this year’s delayed from early July date to late August out of caution.

The spread of the Delta variant made the August 20-28 dates tricky as well, but the feeling as the festival launched was less one of caution than of celebration. And the ceremony, as usual, opened not with speeches or film clips but with a bit of playful abstract dance; with Prague-based directors and choreographers Michal Caban and Šimon Caban intimately involved in the KVIFF ceremonies for decades, it is pretty much the only festival that kicks off with interpretive modern dance.

Speeches and film clips followed, but the speeches were brief and the clips came from a robust archive of exceptional KVIFF trailers — not the priceless ones with stars like Helen Mirren and Jude Law, which TheWrap wrote about in 2013, but earlier ones that riffed on the Marx Brothers and found the shapes of the Crystal Globe trophy in nude female bodies.

That award, by the way, is “the heaviest trophy I’ve ever held,” according to this year’s recipient, Michael Caine. The 88-year-old actor appeared frail as he came on stage with a cane, but his voice was as strong and distinctive as ever as he summed up his career in a couple of sentences.

“I started out a nobody from nowhere who knew nothing, who just wandered on and wandered on and wandered on and achieved,” he said, after receiving a lengthy standing ovation. “I have no idea how I did it … You’ve given me an award for something I love dearly: my life.”

Caine’s award was the climax of the first half of the program, which also included a brief introduction from the cast and filmmakers of “Zátopek,” a biographical drama about Czech Olympic runner Emil Zátopek, who won three gold medals in the 1952 Summer Olympics and was later named the greatest runner of all time by Runner’s World magazine. The first to speak was the film’s producer, Kryštof Mucha, who would have been at the ceremony regardless of the opening-night film because he’s KVIFF’s longtime executive director.

During the break between Caine’s award and the premiere of “Zátopek,” Mucha admitted to TheWrap that he was nervous at having his own film kick off the return of the festival. But the film from director David Ondříček is a crowd-pleaser, especially for an audience familiar with stories of the eccentric but gifted runner who is still the only man to win the 500-meter, 10,000-meter and marathon races in a single Olympics. (It was the first marathon he ever ran.)

Framed by the story of a week-long visit to Zátopek (Václav Neuzil) by Australian runner Ron Clarke (James Frecheville), the film jumps between time periods and between Zátopek’s development as a runner, his relationship with his wife Dana (Martha Issová) and his uneasy dealings with the Communist Party, which was in power during his prime days as an athlete and was anxious to use him for propaganda (and a little spying on the side).

Some of the nuances were tough to pick up for the English speakers in Friday’s audience because of dim English subtitles, but the film tells a thrilling athletic story, packs an emotional punch and also manages to make some political points.

Afterward, guests partied on patios that overlooked the hills around Karlovy Vary, while a crowd packed the street in front of the Thermal to listen to a concert performance of songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Masks weren’t much in evidence there, either, but it was all taking place outside as the beat went on past midnight.

The festival will continue for another week, with additional awards going to actor Ethan Hawke and Czech director Jan Svěrák.