My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková) – Jiří Menzel, 1985

Ask a film critic what the best Czech film is, and they’ll probably tell you Marketa Lazarová. Ask your average Czech in the street, however, and they’ll more likely say My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková). Menzel’s second Academy award-nominated film frequently comes in higher than Vláčil’s wild and capricious epic in public polls, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s another celebration from Menzel of the gentle wiles of country folk, and another ode to the idyllic simplicity of village life. In short, it’s exactly the kind of thing that goes down like a curry to a pisshead with the Czechs.

The story concerns Otík (János Bán), a lanky, mentally disabled young man who works as an assistant lorry driver with his rotund, bumptious neighbour, Karel Pávek (Marián Labuda). Mr Pávek has had Otík under his wing for five years now, supervising his work and helping the boy with simple tasks like eating with a knife and fork. Otík totally idolizes Pávek, neatly shown by how he wants to match the older man’s step as the walk to the truck depot each morning.

My Sweet Little Village DVD

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However, as the end of the season nears, Mr Pávek is growing increasingly frustrated with Otík’s simple-minded blunders. He asks for Otík to get transferred to another driver for the following year, the surly and mean-spirited Mr Turek (Petr Čepek). Otík isn’t happy with this arrangement, and accepts a mysterious transfer to Prague…

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Smart Phillip (Mazaný Filip) – Václav Marhoul, 2003

Humphrey Bogart. Elliot Gould. Robert Mitchum. Dick Powell. Danny Glover. James Caan. Many great actors have put their unique spin on the role of Raymond Chandler’s classic sleuth, Phillip Marlowe. Then there’s Tomáš Hanák in Mazaný Filip, who looks about as enthusiastic in the part as a PE teacher who’s been browbeaten by his wife into taking part in a murder mystery LARP, when he could be away on a weekend jolly with his rugby teammates instead.

Starting off by criticizing Hanák’s awkward performance is a bit like standing in front of your house after it’s been flattened by a tornado, and worrying that it’s been ages since you last mowed the lawn. It is maybe the least of the problems with this painfully weak detective spoof, which are so wide-ranging and catastrophic that it’s tough to know where to begin. So it might as well be with the lead.

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The plot of Mazaný Filip is a mish-mash of Chandler-esque story beats. Hanák plays Marlowe, a world-weary detective who spends time between cases peering out through the Venetian blinds in his office, or taking generous slugs from the bottle of liquor that he keeps in his filing cabinet. He’s approached by a character who calls himself “Charlie Brown” (Pavel Liska in an almost unwatchably bizarre performance, which is still not the worst acting in this movie) to find his twin brother…

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Holiday Makers (Účastníci zájezdu) – Jiří Vejdělek, 2006

A broad cross-section of Czech society go on a coach trip to Slovenia for their holidays, and much mirthlessness ensues. While this ensemble comedy-drama from Jiří Vejdělek is wildly unfunny, it is strangely entertaining, if only because it serves as another terrifying glimpse into the cynical and predatory mind of the Czech Republic’s pervert laureate, Michal Viewegh.

The best selling author also provided the source material for easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, Andělé všedního dne (Angels of Everyday). While the attitudes towards sex and women in Holiday Makers aren’t quite as repellent as in that movie, it is still pretty reprehensible. It’s worth saying at this point that I haven’t read Viewegh’s original material for either so perhaps the subtleties of his work don’t translate well to film. However since I found the sexual politics in both films gross, crass and just plain creepy, I think it’s fair to say that I probably have a vastly different worldview to the writer. But more on that later…

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A Prominent Patient (Masaryk) – Julius Ševčík, 2016

It was a full house at Kino Art for a Friday night screening of Julius Ševčík’s Masaryk (aka A Prominent Patient), and it made uncomfortable viewing. I was about the last one in and had to sit on the front row, one English guy watching a film about how my country sold out Czechoslovakia with a room full of Czechs.

I grew up thinking that we were unconditionally the good guys. In history class, we learnt a little about the Munich Agreement, saw pictures of Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper and his infamous “Peace for our time” speech. Our teacher never really got into the human consequences of it – who cared about Czechoslovakia anyway? He just wanted to get to the fun stuff, and it was just a prologue before Winston Churchill sparked up a big cigar and guided us to our Finest Hour.

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History is written by the victors, and we were raised on our grandparent’s war stories. Although they all lost friends and family during the war, they always talked about it with pride and nostalgia. Pride in playing their own small part in defeating the Nazis, and nostalgia for the sense of identity and purpose it gave them.

Then I grew up a bit, and found out that we weren’t always the good guys. In fact, there were many occasions when we were the bad guys. That boggled my mind for a while because I’d always been unthinkingly proud of my country’s role in World War II and the world as a whole, and it didn’t occur to me that other countries might not like us very much. Then it dawned on me – perhaps there is a reason no-one votes for us in the Eurovision Song Contest…

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Seclusion Near a Forest (Na samotě u lesa) – Jiří Menzel, 1976

There can be no greater picture of contentment than a Czech guy standing with a beer in his hand, meat on the grill, and his feet in the grass on a summer’s day. Czechs rarely need an excuse to evacuate the towns and cities at the weekends in the summer and head out to the forests, lakes and hills, where many still own a vacation cottage. They genuinely seem to draw spiritual energy from contact with their nature, which stands in stark contrast to back home in Britain. For many urban-dwelling Brits, a trip to the countryside is something to be dutifully endured rather than enjoyed. This may be the reason that we have folk horror, and the Czechs have gentle folk comedies like Na samotě u lesa.

Zdeněk Svěrák (Kolya, Empties) plays Olda Lavička, head of a nice Prague family who are looking to buy their own country cottage. An eccentric acquaintance, Radim Zvon (Ladislav Smoljak, the man behind Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping in a colourful role) has taken up residence in a beautiful old mill. He points them in the direction of an elderly farmer, Mr Komárek (Josef Kemr – Marketa Lazarova), who may be willing to sell up and relocate to Slovakia to live with his son. He’s got a few loose ends to tie up first though, like selling his cow and sorting out the crops, so in the meantime, he agrees to rent the Lavičkas a room so they can stay whenever they like.

Seclusion DVD

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Mr Komárek’s cottage is picturesquely ramshackle, with rotten floorboards and damp in the walls. Apart from the old man, the Lavičkas end up sharing the joint with his mischievous goat, some invasive chickens, a cow, a dog and its fleas (despite the locals’ insistence that dog fleas don’t bite humans). Olda is totally enthralled by every aspect of country living, and his inquisitive son and daughter settle in well, instinctively calling Mr Komárek “grandad”. Mrs Lavička is less enthused about cottage sharing with a strange old man and the total lack of mod cons, such as electricity. She also thinks they should be encouraging Mr Komárek to get his arse into gear and sell up so they can enjoy the cottage without him hanging around, rather than feeding him and keeping him company…

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Czech Directors Abroad: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Miloš Forman, 1975

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…” – Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man

Troubled times often produce great art. In Seventies America, directors finding freedom after the collapse of the old Hollywood system were able to use the uncertainty and paranoia of the time as muse, producing an incredible sequence of films. These movies captured the sombre tone of the Nixon and late Vietnam era, as well as channelling the psychic fallout from the tumultuous previous decade. They were often cynical, fatalistic, angry, paranoid, usually featuring ambiguous or dislikeable protagonists and open-ended or downbeat conclusions, but they were – and still are – a feast for cinephiles.

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