Mandragora - or Mandrake - is a noxious plant named from two Greek words meaning “harmful to cattle”. Reportedly hallucinogenic and used in the distant past as an anaesthetic before operations, it was fabled to grow under the gallows of hung men, and thirst for their sperm. When dug up, the plant howled and shrieked and bought instant death to the digger.
The so-called Velvet Revolution, a romantic event which brought an end to Communist government in Czechosolvakia in 1989, brought welcome change but with such change comes instability and fracture. Many young Czechs moved from newly dead rural areas to try their luck in shadowy Prague. For every Lukas Ridgeston, however, there were hundreds of less-photogenic men who ended up as exploited, displaced street hustlers snatching at a buck or two wherever they could find it.
Put these two threads of recent history and botanic mythology together and you’ve got Mandragora, a relentlessly depressing if rather melodramatic underside look at the lives of poor young men in Eastern Europe. Those brought up on Bel Ami porn who imagine Prague to be a wealthy Eden of gay porn superstars and glamorous gay hustlers will be seriously unsettled by this sometimes ghastly, Vampiric piece.
Marek (Mirek Caslavka) lives with father in rural Czechoslovakia. He’s in training to become a welder, like his father, but he has no interest in welding or living out the potato-eating life of his forebears. So he breaks into a shop and steals some city clothes and the money for a train trip to Prague. When he disembarks there, he encounters the train station hustlers, a lowly group under the thumb of Honza (Pavel Skripal), a leather-clad creep who immediately tricks Marek into his first trick, which just happens to involve some secret Rohypnol and a fat old slag who refers to Marek as a rabbit. Things unravel pretty quickly for Marek from here, as he is taken under the younger, handsomer but not much more responsible wing of David (David Svec), a fellow hustler. They try a bunch of things to maximise their earnings, including shooting low-rent porn and working for different pimps, but things go from bad to worse and it isn’t long before heroin and HIV enter the frame.
There’s not a lot of optimism in Mandragora, and the purgatorial structure of the third act, which features one false, tragic ending after the next, is totally free of hope. By this stage of the movie Marek’s tricks include a wealthy Englishman who likes to have boys surgically rearranged, without anaesthetic, to look like classical statuary. An American trick drugged and robbed by Marek and David virtually rises from the grave, returning to wreak revenge with a unlubricated pool cue. The junkie eye make-up and fake yellow teeth of the final scenes are about the only mirth-inducing distraction from the constant bleakness.
It all balances precariously on the edge of ridiculousness, but somehow it landed on the impressive side for me. The strong acting, including an ensemble made up of actual Prague street hustlers, is a plus, and there’s a crumbling, post-Communist authenticity to the locations. The melodramatic pitch and predictable storyline seem to match that particularly Eastern European aesthetic, which reaches for the skies occasionally, but which in the main stays pessimistic and rugged up against the cold.