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Featured TV on DVD Review: Burning Bush

September 14th, 2014

Burning Bush - Buy from Amazon: DVD

Burning Bush is a three-part, four-hour TV mini-series that was made and first aired in the Czech Republic. It is about the resistance to the Soviet occupation of the then Czechoslovakia. It was recut as a movie, which came out in limited release this summer. This week, the full mini-series is being released on DVD. Will it appeal to those who are interested in the historical events? Will the mini-series appeal to those who are unfamiliar?

The Show

After some archival footage and a title card explaining how the Soviet block invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, we jump ahead five months to January 16th, 1969. There we see a young man, whom we later learn is Jan Palach, douse himself in gasoline and then light himself on fire. One of the witnesses tries to put out the fire and finally succeeds, but as he is being lifted into the ambulance, he first asks for his briefcase and then tells the man, "Tell them it wasn't a suicide." When a fellow student examines the briefcase, he reads the suicide note, for lack of a better term, and rushes to meet Dagmar Buresova, a powerful lawyer. The letter states he is part of a political movement and if the Communists don't give into their demand, more of them will commit suicide through self-immolation. Instead, the collaborative government in Czechoslovakia decide to crush this movement, because if things get even a little out of hand, the Communist leaders in Moscow will throw them out of power and replace them. However, his fellow students decide to take up his cause, although not in such an extreme way. Most just want to organize a general strike in protest of the occupation. Meanwhile, his family is trying to cope with what happened. For a while, they didn't know if Jan Palach would live or die. Although, as his brother mentions, given the severity of the burns, living might have been worse than dying.

There's not a lot of details on the plot that I can give for two reasons. Firstly, the plot moves slowly throughout the first installment of the mini-series. (This is not a complaint, just a statement of fact.) It is mostly the reactions of the various groups, the government, the students, the family, etc. and not a lot of action takes place. The director, Agnieszka Holland, clearly wanted us to see the daily lives of the people of Czechoslovakia to give us a sense of what it was like to live under Soviet occupation. That's not to say nothing of interest happens. For instance, one of Dagmar Buresova colleagues, Vladimir Charouz, learns his daughter didn't show up at school and since she was in the same class as Jan, he thinks she might try to follow Jan's example. Secondly, what plot details that do happen are either character moments, or quickly run into spoiler territory. The main plot thread deals with the government's reaction. They decide to reduce the effect of Jan's martyrdom by claiming he was working with the West. The slander is so much that his mother, Libuse Palachova, decides to sue and hires Dagmar Buresova as her lawyer. This of course puts the two women directly in conflict with the government.

Burning Bush is a very powerful mini-series that works both as a character drama and as a political thriller. Granted, it leans heavily on the former compared to the latter, but it works as both. As I mentioned above, the smaller character moments really help get across what it was like living in this world. The acting is also a huge asset. Jaroslava Pokorna plays the mother, while Tatiana Pauhofova plays the lawyer and both women put in award-worthy performances. In fact, the film was the big winner at the Czech Lions this year and Jaroslava Pokorna's win for Best Supporting Actress was among the ten categories they won in, while Tatiana Pauhofova earned an nomination for Best Lead Actress. I'm a little surprised she didn't win, although I obviously don't know a lot about the competition.

The Extras

There are no extras on the DVD.

The Verdict

Burning Bush is a powerful mini-series and those who are interested in this particular part of history in particular, or of political dramas in general will want to check it out. There are no real extras on the DVD, but it is still worth picking up.

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Filed under: Video Review, Agnieszka Holland, Tatiana Pauhofova, Jaroslava Pokorna, Adrian Jastraban