Sun, Hay, Strawberries (Slunce, seno, jahody) – Zdeněk Troška, 1983

“What do you think of Slunce, Seno, Jahody?” I messaged a Czech friend after my first viewing of the lowbrow villagecore classic.

“Cheap jokes for people who vote Zeman.” Came her rather sniffy reply.

Sign of the times, I guess – I wanted to talk movies and she gets all political on me. Not that her reply was entirely unexpected. The film has a reputation of being loud, crude and stupid – pretty much how young progressive urban Czechs regard those living in rural areas, who tend to be the kind of people who vote for Trump-ish characters like the drunken, bigoted, chain-smoking President Zeman.

Slunce seno jahody DVD

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Make no mistake, Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely loud, crude and stupid. To give an example of the level of humour, one scene features a senile old lady trying to hide a turd from her overbearing daughter. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. However, the film has a directness that I appreciated, unlike the ponderous pace of so many Czech movies I’ve seen so far. It bounces along nicely with a goofy energy that I found genuinely charming.

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Angels (Andělé všedního dne) – Alice Nellis, 2014

Death comes to us all, and when that last moment stretches out to eternity, all men face the same questions. Have I lived my life to the fullest? Have I done the best for my loved ones? Was I man enough when circumstances demanded it? Did I dare disturb the universe? Did I get enough blowjobs?

Andělé všedního dne by Alice Nellis is a crass, tasteless and utterly depressing film. It tries to say things about mortality and kindness, but is literally about a man who thinks his life is shit because he’s never been sucked off before.

Ever reliable Bolek Polívka (Divided We Fall, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday) plays Karel, an ageing driving instructor stuck in a loveless marriage with his neurotic, sour-faced wife Marie (Zuzana Bydžovská). They’ve been married for twenty-seven years, but he’s never experienced the pleasures of oral sex. Karel has the hots for Ester (Klára Melíšková), one of his pupils and a recently widowed doctor. It is the last day of Karel’s life, and four angels arrive on earth to oversee his final few hours.

There are other characters vaguely populating the background, including Václav Neužil as a stalker, whose life will intersect with Karel’s at the most unlikely and inconvenient moment. Andělé všedního dne is a small film overcrowded with lots of thinly written characters, but its main dramatic thrust depends on this – will Karel die with a smile on his face?

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Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto) – Jiří Menzel, 1967

Unlike where I come from in England, we tend to get long hot summers here in the Czech Republic. The good weather sets in towards the end of April and usually runs through until late September. It’s my ninth summer here now and each year, sometime around late August, when the nights are drawing in and there’s a breath of autumn on the breeze, I’m always struck by a bittersweet feeling. It’s a sense of longing and loss and melancholy, a sensation that has intensified as the years ticked down towards my 40th birthday. Somewhere inside I sigh and think, “Well, that’s another year over.” Followed by a nasty little whisper at the back of my mind, “How many good summers have you got left?”

That bittersweet feeling is captured so beautifully by Jiří Menzel’s Rozmarné Léto. I first saw it very early after we arrived to live in the Czech Republic, and initially I was quite dismissive of it. I hadn’t adjusted to the rhythm and pace of Czech films and to me it felt like a pilot for a sitcom, mainly because of its surface similarity to the long-running British comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine, which followed the shenanigans of three retired blokes in a small town in northern England.

Capricious Summer DVD

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Rozmarné Léto is a perennial favourite in the Czech Republic. It is Menzel’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vančura. It’s a gentle yet neatly observed bedroom face about three old friends whose comfortable boredom is disrupted when a travelling acrobat rolls into town, and each one’s trousers are set a-rustling by his beautiful young assistant.

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Anthropoid – Sean Ellis, 2016

Every now and then two films come out around the same time covering the same topic – Twilight and Let the Right One InDeep Impact and ArmageddonHitchcock and The Girl. A few years ago, there was a mesmerising, beautifully erotic examination of a couple involved in a kinky sub-dom relationship. It was called The Duke of Burgundy, and Jamie Dornan wasn’t in it. He was in the other one, Fifty Shades of something.

Then we had two films released within a few months of each other about the valiant Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated Hitler’s third in command, Reinhard Heydrich. First out of the gate was Anthropoid, starring Dornan alongside Cillian Murphy, followed by HHhH, an adaptation of Laurent Binet’s well-received novel. Would Dornan be in the better movie of the two this time round?

I hate to say it without seeing both, but probably not. Any film on this subject is bound to be compared to Binet’s terrific book, which managed the tricky task of making a historic event genuinely suspenseful and exciting. The book had scope, compassion and a lightness of touch, and the chapters covering the assassination and the parachutist’s last stand in a Prague cathedral flew past so quick that I left burn marks on the pages. It’s a fantastic story that deserves a modern re-telling (although maybe not twice in the space of a year), and I dearly hoped that Anthropoid would do justice to the tale.

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I, Olga (Já, Olga Hepnarová) – Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, 2016

I was excited to see Já, Olga Hepnarová as part of a full house crowd on its first release. Often when I watch Czech movies at the cinema the audience is me, the projectionist and his dog, so it was pleasing to see people resisting the lure of the multiplex to support a film as resolutely un-popcorn as this. It’s a sombre arthouse character study of the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.

We meet Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska) recovering from a failed suicide attempt, and after a spell in a psychiatric hospital she shuns her comfy middle-class family to take work as a truck driver. Bitter and alienated, she lives in semi-squalor in the family’s summer cottage, drinking, smoking and seducing local women. As her mental health deteriorates, she imagines herself the victim of a bullying society and plots callous revenge.

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Up and coming Polish actress Olszanska puts in a fantastic performance as Hepnarová. She never asks for the audience’s sympathy and is immensely watchable despite her permanently glowering countenance.

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Daisies (Sedmikrásky) – Věra Chytilová, 1966

Surrealist and Avant-Garde films aren’t always the most popular choice for the average moviegoer. Until Leos Carax’s demented Holy Motors generated some outside-bet Oscar buzz a few years ago, I’d rather watch a compilation tape of hairy builders receiving a back, sack and crack before dabbling with the avant-garde.

My perspective has changed slightly since then, largely on the basis of Denis Lavant’s incredible (literally) balls-out multiple performances in that movie, and two of my favourite films of the past few years are of the avant-garde variety – Dziga Vertov’s hypnotic portrait of a city in Man with a Movie Camera, and Věra Chytilová’s playful yet provocative Daisies.

Daisies Blu Ray

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A cornerstone of the Czech New Wave, Daisies tells of two young women, known as Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who declare that they are broken and in that case, they might as well be bad…

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The Way Out (Cesta Ven) – Petr Václav, 2014

It has been a long time since a film altered my view of the world I live in. Petr Václav’s Cesta ven did just that, exposing the reality of life for the Czech Republic’s Roma community. It also  made me realise, living as I do in my cosy expat bubble, that it would take a bizarre and unlikely set of circumstances for me to ever come close to the levels of poverty and hopelessness experienced by the characters in this eye-opening slice of social realism.

Working with non-professional actors, Cesta ven centres around Žaneta (Klaudia Dudová), a young Romani mother trying to make ends meet against a grim backdrop of unemployment, debt, criminality, alcoholism, prostitution, poverty and racial prejudice which forms the day-to-day reality of her embattled community within the community.

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Marketa Lazarová – František Vláčil, 1967

There’s an underseen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern-day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st-century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.

Director František Vláčil (Adelheid, The White Dove) spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship.

Marketa Lazarova Blu Ray

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Few films also match Marketa Lazarová‘s dazzling visuals with such authentic production values, so while the virtuosity of Vláčil’s film making often distracts from the story, the credibility of its setting is never in doubt.

Based on the novel by Vladislav Vančura, which in turn was based on an ancient Czech legend, the film declares itself a “Rhapsody” on the title card. That might seem a little precious, but Vláčil is a director who freely admits to valuing visuals over story, and by dispensing with most conventional narrative techniques creates a film that is both lyrical and rhapsodic. It is perhaps best enjoyed if you can forget the story and surrender yourself to it as a purely sensory experience…

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Cosy Dens (Pelíšky) – Jan Hřebejk, 1999

Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) is an immensely satisfying tragicomedy set in the months preceding the fateful Prague Spring of 1968. It’s a robust family drama featuring some wonderfully poignant comic performances from a formidable cast of Czech and Slovak character actors.

The picture opens in the winter of ’67, and lovelorn teenager Michal  Šebek (Michael Beran) wants to end it all. He is hopelessly in love with his upstairs neighbour Jindřiška (Kristýna Nováková). The trouble is, she is going out with his much cooler mate Elien (Ondřej Brousek), who gets all the latest movies, music and fashion from his parents living in the States.

Pelisky DVD

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To make matters worse, her father, Mr Kraus (Jiří Kodet) is a rabid anti-communist and war hero and often has flaming rows with Michal’s own father. Mr Šebek (Miroslav Donutil, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday) is a staunch supporter of the Communist government, an army officer so petty and regimented that he types out a weekly menu for his family.

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The Elementary School (Obecná škola) – Jan Svěrák, 1991

Living here in Brno, Czech Republic, I’ve spoken to many other expats over the years about Czech film. Most don’t watch them – sure, they’ve seen a few of the biggies, but generally people don’t bother unless they have to. They tend to find them slow, boring and difficult to engage with, and Czech humour doesn’t seem to translate well on film – to those not on the right wavelength (and I include myself in that category), it tends to be a little too bitter and deadpan, or too broad and nostalgic.

As a Brit, the former usually works better for me, as our own humour tends toward the straight-faced and understated, whereas the broadest excesses of Czech comedy reminds me more of the bawdiness of our 70s sex farces.

Obecna Skola Blu Ray

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The Elementary School (Obecná škola) is a sweet-natured coming-of-age tale set just after WWII, “after the Fascists have been defeated, and before the Communists have won.” It swings towards the broad and nostalgic end of the Czech comedy spectrum, but is a genuinely funny movie. Oscar-winning director Jan Svěrák (Kolja, Dark Blue World) demonstrates a deft touch for slapstick and draws excellent comic performances from his small cast.

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