Director: Martin Šulík
Screenplay: Ondrej Sulaj, Martin Šulík
Starring: Maria Pakulnis, György Cserhalmi, Géza Benkõ, Iva Bittová
Country: Czechoslovakia
Running Time: 108 min
Year: 1991
BBFC Certificate: 15

Martin Šulík is a director that came out of post-Communist Slovakia and found great acclaim for his work, picking up a raft of awards around the world, though the biggest festivals have alluded him so far. He’s made eight feature films and some significant documentaries focussed on cinema from the Czech and Slovak republics. He’s not particularly well-known outside of those areas though and his films are woefully ill-served in the UK. In a bid to remedy this, Second Run, who have long been great supporters of Eastern-European cinema, are releasing the director’s debut feature, Tenderness (a.k.a. Neha) on Blu-ray. Though I must admit I hadn’t heard of the film or its director before now, I have great trust in Second Run’s tastes, so ventured forth to review the title and my thoughts follow.

Tenderness sees a young man, Simon (Géza Benkõ), leave his country home after clashing with his father. He moves into a small apartment in the city where he lives a lonely and tedious existence. We see him leaf through textbooks but he doesn’t seem to be studying for anything in particular. He goes out for runs but again this seems like a meaningless exercise. He self-harms at one point too, possibly to feel alive amidst the tedium.

One day, however, when dining alone in a restaurant, he meets Mária (Maria Pakulnis) and Viktor (György Cserhalmi). They are a dysfunctional couple who bring Simon into the equation to create an equally dysfunctional ménage à trois. Viktor seems to push Simon into forming a relationship with Mária but becomes aggressive whenever he makes any moves on her. Viktor, in this way, seems intent on toying with his two companions and humiliating them whenever the chance arises.

As Viktor’s relationship with Mária begins to crumble ever further, we meet another woman he has an unclear but sexual relationship with, Marta (Iva Bittová). She’s deaf and living alone with her son (we are told the father isn’t paying his alimony). Viktor brings Simon to visit her and once again tries to ‘share’ her with him.

The relationships go through their complex dips and troughs before we learn a key reason behind Viktor’s bullying of Mária. After this, Simon has had enough and heads back home, but the couple reappear with news and a seeming reconciliation.

This is a difficult review for me to subjectively write because, from a personal perspective, it simply wasn’t a film for me. I mean that in two ways. For one, this style of twisted relationship drama has long been a turn-off of mine. Perhaps I haven’t been in enough relationships or I have a very old-fashioned, dull view of them, but I struggle to engage with or relate to films of this type, give or take a few titles (I liked Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon a lot when I watched it recently, for instance).

Possibly more importantly than this though, Tenderness is advertised as being an allegory for the political climate of Czechoslovakia at the time, and, to be blunt, my knowledge of this is pretty minimal, other than skimming through Wikipedia articles for some previous Czech film reviews. Digging deeper into the era in which the film was made afterwards though and thinking back to what I watched, the allegory is clear but thankfully not overplayed for any polemic means.

Tenderness was made a couple of years after the ‘velvet revolution’, when a pro-democracy movement swiftly brought down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. You must forgive my presumptions about the situation but, from what I can gather, the country was in a sort of confused, uneasy state, where it had made a drastic change but people hadn’t yet got used to what that would mean and how it would operate. Further changes were yet to come when the country split in two in 1992, but it’s this sense of entering into a new unknown world that Tenderness is examining.

It does this by reflecting the political situation in Simon’s journey into the adult world. He leaves home to get away from his parents but has no plan so drifts around aimlessly. His perplexing trials set forth largely by Viktor are his later initiations into adulthood.

So, it’s thought-provoking stuff once you boil it down. However, whilst watching the film, I must admit I struggled to stay engaged. It has a slow-moving narrative that treads water for a long time and has barely perceptible arcs, so was quite a slog to get through. Tonally it’s quite sombre too, with only slight traces of humour and warmth.

However, my various disinclinations towards the film couldn’t hide the fact that it’s clearly beautifully crafted, particularly for a debut. It’s artfully composed and lit, with a fairly static, minimalist style. The music is gorgeous too, particularly the dance-like theme that plays in-between each of the film’s chapters. The score only appears sparingly, but always makes an impact when it does.

So, Tenderness was too meandering and cold for my tastes but it has a curious allure and quiet elegance to it, plus it’s clearly an intelligent and finely crafted film. So, although it’s not a disc I’ll be rushing to put back on any time soon, I’m still curious to further explore Šulík’s filmography and would recommend the film to those it is better catered for.

Tenderness is out on 10th August on region-free Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Run. The transfer is decent, with no apparent damage to the print and pleasing colours. It’s a touch on the soft side but this is likely down to the source material. Audio is strong too.

A few special features are included:

– Tenderness (Neha) (1990) presented from the new 2K restoration of the film from original materials supervised by the Slovak Film Institute and approved by the director.
– On Tenderness (2020) – a new documentary on the film and its legacy.
– Hurá (1989) – Martin Šulík’s acclaimed short film.
– Booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Peter Hames.
– Region free Blu-ray (A/B/C)
– 1.0 Mono LPCM audio (48k/24-bit)
– World premiere on Blu-ray

Hurá is a beautifully made short that blends an overview of a retired miner’s troubled life with a potted history of Czechoslovakia during the time, helping explain how the changes in the country affected it.

On Tenderness is great too, helping better appreciate the film and its themes.

As always, the booklet included is also excellent, providing further analysis of the film and its makers.

Tenderness (a.k.a. Neha) - Second Run
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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