Janosik: A True Story (Janosik. Prawdziwa historia)

Poland/Slovakia/Czech Republic (2009) Dirs. Kasia Adamik & Agnieszka Holland

I must confess to have never heard of Juro Janosik, a Slovakian highwayman who did actually exist in the 18th century and is a folklore legend across Eastern Europe. A parallel of sorts would be our very own Robin Hood in that Janosik targeted the rich and shared his loot with the poor, albeit with a lot less Lincoln green in their outfits.

Whether the tale recounted in the adaptation by the mother and daughter tandem of Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik is genuinely true is something we’ll have to take their word on, although in all fairness there is actually very little in the way of a story here, instead we have a series of possibly chronological happenings.

In the first ten minutes alone, the eponymous hero (played by Czech actor Václav Jirácek) has been captured by the emperor’s soldiers, hired as a jail guard, jailed himself for allowing a prisoner to escape, done his time, been released, returned home and had the first of many intimate moments with a member of the opposite gender!! Busy lad eh?

With a run time of 137 minutes we get the initial impression that this hasty opening is merely a tasty appetiser for a veritable feast of an epic adventure yarn to come. Instead we get a rather tough and gristly slab of steak that we find hard to finish having already procrastinated enough and eaten all the garnish.

Characters come and go without so much as a proper introduction, usually identified when their time is up or have done something to incur the distrust of the group. In fact, Janosik isn’t even the leader of any group at first, originally recruited by innkeeper Tomasz Uhorczyk (Ivan Martinka) and forced into a drunken initiation ceremony about 30 minutes into the film, rising to the rank of leader later on.

I apologise for being so glib but the narrative of this film is very confused and haphazard, and seems to be targeted more at an audience already familiar with the Janosik legend than to clueless newbies such as yours truly. A small recap in the final act to clear things up comes way too late by which time many confused viewers may have already given up and turned this off.

Over time Janosik gains notoriety when one of his recent new recruits Turjag Huncaga (Michal Zebrowski) boasts to a victim to tell everyone they’ve been robbed by Janosik. He is at first annoyed at this but soon realises the cachet such a fearsome reputation brings with it, both to the bourgeois and the downtrodden, to whom he becomes a mercurial hero. But with fame comes resentment and even someone as resourceful as Janosik will soon push his luck once too often.

Whatever stories have been told before about Janosik – he has been the subject of numerous books, plays, TV series and films, including the very first Slovakian feature film made in 1921 – the assumption is they offer neophytes a little more to go on and offer a more in depth look into his personality. Be it the performance or the direction, one doesn’t much of a feel for who Janosik really is, outside of being a cocky robber or “brigands” as they are referred to.

The actual robberies are few and far between and are conducted more like Dick Turpin than Robin Hood, sans the masks and “Stand and Deliver” routine but still with a triumphant swagger and witty remark for the victim. Nobody is ever killed but the truly awful aristocrats who have wronged the group in the past do receive a nasty beating from time to time.

Janosik is presented here as a romantic anti-hero but without any prior knowledge I cannot say if this is accurate or not. The casting of pretty boy Václav Jirácek in the title role might suggest this was a deliberate case of facilitating a fantasy by the female directors, but again I know little about them to make such a claim with any confidence. The senior of the two, Agnieszka Holland was nominated for an Oscar for her 1990 film Europa Europa so she comes with some credibility to her name.   

But this isn’t reflected too well in this film, especially were Václav Jirácek is concerned as he doesn’t possess enough testosterone for such a commanding role, only really showing signs of life during the final execution scenes. Other men, such as Huncaga are portrayed as tough and masculine, getting more stuck in during the fight scenes while Janosik prefers a dapper duel.

Then again Janosik gets the most female attention too, including innkeeper’s daughter Anusia (Tatiana Pauhofová) – who ends up with one of his followers – Barbara (Sarah Zoe Canner), a priests daughter who follows Janosik about like his own personal stalker. Most of the sex scenes are brief and often bawdy like a Carry On film, feeling like they’ve been inserted into the film just because.

On the plus side the photography is stunning and the landscapes are captured in some superbly composed shots, creating a vast and wonderfully idyllic world to live in. The recreation of the period is exceptional in is detail and very immersive – it doesn’t just look but feels utterly authentic. The cast are very much into their roles and add much to creating a faithful and believable re-enactment of events.

I haven’t been this befuddled by a film since the oblique but masterful madness of Hard To Be A God, an apposite comparison since both feature a similar historical aesthetic. To make matters worse the chap on the front cover of the UK DVD release (see image above) is in fact Huncaga and not Janosik!

Despite the superb production values Janosik: A True Story doesn’t really tell us anything of the man’s legend and sadly is too long, directionless and discordant for newcomers to fully appreciate it either.


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