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7 May 2005 (Czech Republic)  »

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The Torchbearer  »

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An extraordinarily atmospheric animation
25 August 2006 | by See all my reviews

On finding out that this film is the creation of Jan Švankmajer's son, Václav, one could be forgiven for expecting a derivative imitation of his father's pioneering stop-motion animation style. However, 'The Torchbearer' acquits itself as a major and distinctive work in its own right, arguably the greatest sub-30-minute film of 2005. Visually, it is in a more 'classical' vein than any of Švankmajer Sr's messy and visceral shorts: the film follows the passage of an austere and silent figure in Greco-Roman armour through a castle resembling one of Piranesi's imaginary prisons, and inhabited by female statues who come to life and watch from the shadows (I won't go into the further details here, since I couldn't do them justice anyway). Both the structure and the imagery of the film seem to invite possible allegorical readings: temporal cycles, the rise and fall of kings, the martial invasion of a matriarchal space, etc. (although the absence of dialogue leaves things uncertain).

The models are crisp and realistic, and sound is put to haunting use: creaking pulleys, the clank of metal on stone, unidentified subterranean rumbling. In fact, if 'The Torchbearer' resembles anything, it is the Quay Brothers' sombre 'Street of Crocodiles' (itself Švankmajer-inspired), although one can see that the filming technology has moved on in the intervening twenty years. This film deserves to be seen not only by Švankmajer/Quay enthusiasts, but anyone who remains sceptical about the power of animation to create genuinely 'dark' environments that rival live-action productions. I saw it amongst other shorts (both hand-drawn and CGI) at an animation festival, but it made everything else seem weak by comparison. Unfortunately I doubt this will reach much beyond the orbit of the international festival circuit, and Václav's father's name may be more of a hindrance than a help to him, but I would recommend keeping an eye out for it.


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