“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.
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.
After a bawdy opening scene featuring a vicar unsuccessfully trying to peep on a young couple having sex in the woods, the story begins in earnest when a handsome young agricultural student, Šimon Plánička (Pavel Kikinčuk), rolls up in the small South Bohemian village of Hoštice to help out the local JZD brigade. (JZD was the Jednotné zemědělské družstvo, or agricultural collective in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.) The village is so small that the train doesn’t even bother stopping there, but thankfully the cute conductress slows it down enough for him to jump off.
His arrival causes quite a stir, especially among the young women of the town, and his radical ideas for improving the milk production of the local cows – playing them music – raises a few eyebrows. He takes lodging with the formidable Mrs Škopková (the wonderful Helena Růžičková, reminiscent of Hattie Jacques from the Carry On films) and her layabout husband. Šimon also catches the eye of Mrs Škopková’s eldest daughter Blažena (Veronika Kánská), the blonde we saw having a spot of nookie in the woods in the opening scene with her extremely jealous boyfriend Venca (Broněk Černý).
That’s the basic set up, with the JZD initially thinking Šimon might be a spy before embracing his unorthodox methods, which involves a no-expense-spared kitting out of all the cows with their own personal set of headphones. There’s other bits of business, some quirky and amusing, others so lowbrow that they scrape along the floor. There’s some local legend involving a mill and a friendly ghost, who has a habit of engaging newcomers in conversation then disappearing before their eyes, an old granny who’s always hoping for a fight to break out, and the village teacher who can’t resist bursting into song. She’s always singing the film’s theme tune – it’s a real earworm and appears in various other guises throughout, like the theme in Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
Less funny is the senile granny – Mrs Škopková’s mum – who gets wheeled out into the garden in her bed each day and left there. She has a love-hate relationship with a chicken, and inevitably the bed ends up rolling away through the village. Other jokes were so simple they went under my head, if that can be a thing. In one such scene, another old lady (there’s swarms of old ladies in this movie) mistakes the moon shining through a small copse of trees as fire and sounds the alarm. The rest of the villagers, who are attending a dance, all scramble to finish their drinks and run outside to put the fire out, only to realise it’s just the moon. The teacher bursts into song again and they carry on drinking in the field. It’s a fairly lengthy scene, and I thought there must be greater significance, but no – the joke was: an old lady mistook the moon for fire and sounded the alarm, disrupting the village dance.
So Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely dumb, and the characters in it are loud and crude. I can see why my Czech friends hate it, as it doesn’t show their compatriots in the most flattering light – having visited numerous villages, I suspect the people in this film are closer to reality than the rural philosophers of Rozmarné léto.
Despite all that, I appreciated its bluntness after several movies featuring small town characters wistfully pondering their existence. It also doesn’t dance around the subject it is supposedly satirizing, unlike some of its more illustrious counterparts – it outright takes the piss out of the JZD, and as a result I ended up learning something about collective farming (Admittedly online the next day, not from the film itself.)
Slunce, Seno, Jahody might not be Oscar Wilde, but it’s worth seeing if only to find out why your Czech friends hate it so much. It’s a fun movie, and I could imagine it playing well with a spliff.