“LET THERE BE LIGHT”— Small-Town Xenophobia


Small-Town Xenophobia

Amos Lassen

In “Let There Be Light”, a well-meaning father does everything he can for his family, but circumstances beyond his control put him in an impossible moral dilemma. This is the the second feature from Slovak writer-director Marko Škop (Eva Nová). At the outset of the film, Milan (Milan Ondrík) is infectiously good-natured: working construction in Germany to earn money for his three kids’ future tuition. He is charming in a goofy way that is almost too much for his host family to handle.

Milan makes it back home to small-town Slovakia just in time for the Christmas holidays to be with wife Zuzka (Zuzana Konečná) and their kids, including high school-aged Adam (František Beleš), a problem for his mother because of his mysterious late-night outings.

Tragedy comes to the fore when a pair of local policemen pay the family a visit to ask Adam some questions: a fellow member of his “group” has committed suicide, and his parents believe bullying or abuse to be the culprit. The group, as Milan soon comes to find out, isn’t just the wrong crowd: it’s a paramilitary-like sect of young adults out to protect their rural Slovak villages from the threat of Islamic extremists, organized in part by a xenophobic local Priest (Daniel Fischer).

At the heart of “Let There Be Light” are the crossroads where Milan inadvertently finds himself at: do nothing about the group, which already bears responsibility for one death, and put his son’s future in jeopardy. If he does something, he may place the rest of his family in immediate danger. The further Milan delves into trying to work things out such as meeting with the dead boy’s parents (Csongor Kassai and Anikó Vargová) and getting a whole lot of resentment from his own father (Ľubomír Paulovič), the further he gets from any practical solution.

The story is told without a musical score and tackles modern issues facing Europe with an unflinching realism. Much of the beauty of the film comes from the empathetic lead performance from Ondrík as Milan, an irrepressibly cheerful character who just wants to do the right thing and has the positive outlook drained right out of him during the course of the movie.

“There’s no dick harder than life,” Milan jokes with his wife after finding himself unable to perform near the beginning of “Let There Be Light”. The following narrative proves that all too true.

Milan faces a grim reality check after finding out his son became radicalized in his absence by a far-right paramilitary troop. The film follows a trajectory of current socio-political climate that is familiar from other countries “where populists and closeted fascists run around offering simple answers to complicated, and at some cases uneven nonexistent problems.”

This story unfolds in this very same climate although set into conditions and circumstances belonging to the domestic environment in a zeitgeist manner. Economic migration became a necessity in many households in poorer regions, the toll it takes on families is also one of the central themes in “Let There Be Light”.

Director Marko Škop deeply researched the topics of employs in a form of motifs evolving into parallel storylines. Two figures personify these– Milan´s father and a local priest. A larger generational schism divides Milan and his reserved and cold father what leads to a tense and strained relationship. The Catholic priest, on the other hand, emerges as an archetypal character proclaiming to protect traditional values what coincidently is the very same language far-right extremists use. Furthermore, clerofascism has a recorded history in Slovakia from the times when the country served as a puppet state to Nazi Germany during WWII, a Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso (a hero to local far-righters venerated by several priests as well), was put into the presidential seat who, among other deeds, agreed to Jew deportations to Auschwitz (he was executed for treason after the war).

Milan’s father remains a mystery which is largely for the benefit of the story while the priest is awkwardly childish with an oedipal complex (however, it would explain his engagement in the paramilitary troop where he seems to wield almost ideological power over local youth). 

The fatherly instinct causes Milan to protect his child from undesired influence as his son has managed to adopt not only the xenophobic rhetoric but the far-right worldview as well. The schoolmate´s suicide was not a coincidence and Milan’s attempt to pluck his eldest child from the local paramilitary brigade and extremist ideology put the whole family into danger. And the local priest is not too happy that Milan is behaving in such a socially disruptive manner. 

Škop juggles several topics and motifs to create a portrayal of family and society amid specific circumstances that came to define the current period. He is very careful in designing the plotline, arranging parallel storylines while not overloading or obfuscating his narration.

The result is seemingly linear storytelling and plot development with regard to a rising tension (and eventually a breaking point) between Milan´s family and the rest of village. Ultimately, “Let There Be Light” is more complex and denser in meaning and implications than the plot may appear to carry on the surface.

“Let There Be Light” is a multilayered drama depicting struggles of a family in a collective social portrait where radicalization is the answer in economically less fortunate regions. Yet this is just one symptom that Škop touches upon. The film addresses more issues pertaining to the current times and not solely in the poorer regions of Central and Eastern European countries. The writer-director turns to the topics of fatherhood, masculinity, intergenerational gap and father figures.

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