Nowhere in Moravia (Díra u Hanušovic) – Miroslav Krobot, 2014

Miroslav Krobot’s morosely funny Nowhere in Moravia is a downbeat portrayal of small lives, set in a tiny village where life takes forever.

The opening hours of the local hospoda marks the passing of time, and there are two main ways out – by bus and by coffin. Buses aren’t very frequent, so the villagers eat, drink and screw the days away until death finally comes along to relieve them of their boredom.

If you think that sounds pretty grim, then you’re right – it is.

Having said that, I laughed far more during Nowhere in Moravia than I do in most mainstream American comedies these days, and there is much joy to be had from the bric-a-brac of ordinary life tucked in the corners of cinematographer Jan Baset Střítežský’s gorgeous compositions.

Some of the more farcical elements could be straight from the pages of Hrabal, and a thread of small-town ennui traces back at least as far as Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer), although the bittersweet fatalism of Menzel’s work curdles into outright pessimism in Krobot’s film debut.

The lightweight story centres around thirty-something Maruna (Tatiana Vilhelmová), a barmaid and village bike. Her dreams fled long ago, and now divides her time between shouting matches with her ailing, bitter mother (Johanna Tesařová), pouring pints for the regulars and having sex with the local men.

There aren’t many guys to choose from, and her main beau is the pathetic mayor (Ivan Trojan). His crushed dreams are symbolized by the house he is renovating – although it is little more than a ruin with no signs of building work in progress. Apart from the Mayor, Maruna doesn’t mind casually sleeping with a married roofer and being a figure of lust for gravedigger Olin (Jaroslav Plesl).

Things come to a head when Maruna’s older sister Jaruna (Lenka Krobotová) finds herself an ageing German sugar daddy and considers leaving the village for the bright lights of Munich.

Other characters include “Laďa’s Old Lady” (Simona Babčáková), a sloppy, drunken slut who is shacked up and sleeping with two moronic, monosyllabic odd-job-men. This trio provides most of the film’s outright laughs, although at times I felt as though Krobot was encouraging me to laugh at simple-minded village folk.

The performances are uniformly excellent, although so droll and opaque that it is difficult to register any empathy with the character’s sad lives. The dialogue (in subtitles, at least) felt authentically terse and profane, the bad-tempered exchanges of people completely sick of the sight of one another.

When the characters aren’t swearing at each other, they are usually eating. They reminded me of a small tribe lost in the woods and cut off from the outside world, and as with any tribe, the cooking pot is the common bond. Whether it is sharing a meal of vepřo knedlo zelo, or roasting špekáčky over a makeshift fire, it is food that holds this fraught community together.

Nowhere in Moravia is perhaps ten minutes too long, and it tips over from grimly funny to outright grim in the last act. The film has little else to say apart from: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die”. It is never clear whether Krobot wants to make a social-realist dramedy or an outright miserablist farce, leaving the viewer uncomfortably sitting on the fence, unsure whether to laugh or jump out of the nearest window.

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