Thirteen-year-old newcomer Petr Kotlár plays Joska, a boy who never speaks. He greets the world around him with a doe-eyed, grim, immobile face. Eventually, we grow to understand that he was abandoned by his parents, most likely because of poverty, and left to wander across this landscape. The film provides little explanation or context for the adolescent’s meanderings. An “interslavic language” is used for much of the dialogue — apparently to avoid stigmatizing any single ethnic group. (The novel was criticized for its unsavory depictions of various ethnic groups.)
Joska is looking for signs of hope, and a means of survival, in a world gone mad. In the opening scenes he is carrying a pet cat. We then see him running through the snowy woods pursued by unnamed bullies, who beat him and burn his cat alive. After an aunt, who has taken in the orphaned boy, suddenly dies, the emotional shock makes him knock over a lamp and burn her cabin down. Destitute, he walks off, eventually finding a village filled with superstitious peasants who “diagnose” the dark-skinned lad: “He’s got the Devil in him.” Facing death, he is pronounced a vampire by a primitive healer named Olga, who buys the boy to aid in her practice that draws on incantations, snakes, and ground tooth concoctions.
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