Published Sep 21, 2015The titular Eva Nova (Emília Vásáryová) was once one of the most famous actresses in Czechoslovakia. She was on one of the most popular television shows of the'80s and had a list of films under her belt at a very young age, but those days have long since passed. Czechoslovakia has since been split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic and Eva, having joined alcoholic support groups three times — when Eva Nova starts, she's saying goodbye to her fellow substance abusers for the third time — has been estranged from her son Dod'o (Milan Ondrík), who is now a married father that treats Eva's sister Manka (Zofia Martisová) like the mother he never had.
With Eva Nova, Slovakian director Marko Skop's feature narrative debut, Skop tackles themes of forgiveness, second chances, memory, the movie industry and the downside of success with this premise. And he's doing so without pulling any punches or simplifying the complexities involved with a dysfunctional family that has tendencies towards addictive behaviour. It's also not an accident that the decimated economy serves as a backdrop: Eva is only able to find employment as a grocery store stockperson and Helena (Anikó Varga), Dod'o's wife, has to commute to Poland to work, leaving her family for days at a time. This present day malaise is mirrored by the indulgence and excess of Eva's past, which ultimately led to her downfall (the very same indulgence and excess that led to the downfall of the economy).
Vásáryová, who really has been a successful working actress since the '60s, is phenomenal in this role. She carries the weight of the world in her eyes — something Skop is acutely aware of, lingering on her haunted gaze for extended periods — selling the false confidence of Eva, who can barely hold her composure while desperately trying to get back into her son's life. Even though he kicks her out of his house and openly yells at her, she continually comes back, wanting to know him and the granddaughter she's never met.
What's devastating here is that this isn't just a story about a woman seeking clemency; she's also at a loss with what to do with her life. She tries working at a minimum wage job, but can't even manage to succeed there. Efforts to rekindle her relationship with the movie industry are also ill fated, resulting in more degradations and embarrassment. It's as though the world has moved on and left her behind, which is a difficult pill to swallow while sober.
Though much of what happens in Eva Nova is difficult to watch, it all progresses in a naturally compelling manner. Skop has an eye for character interaction and gives us full access to his protagonist, which allows us to invest in her success. We experience her repeat disappointments, perpetually hoping — much as she does — that her continuous efforts will pay off. This is why watching her strength wane and watching the world continue to knock her down is so difficult: we believe that if given the chance, Eva can be the loving mother, and grandmother, that she never got to be.
Since we're never shown any flashbacks to get a sense of just how awful she was at the height of her alcoholism (though Dod'o shares some awful stories about her pissing her pants in public), it's clear that Skop wants the audience to root for her, despite knowing the likelihood of an addict retreating to their comfort zone when challenged. This suggests that second chances are something he condones, giving this otherwise quite bleak — but not entirely tragic — drama an underlying sense of optimism. It's this sliver of hope that gives Eva Nova its humility, tenderness and humanity, which is vital in a package so closely resembling an unforgiving and unpredictable reality.