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.
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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…
One of their neighbours, Kos, is in a similar situation, living with an elderly couple who came with the cottage when he bought it. Rather than treating them nicely like the Lavičkas do with Mr Komárek, Kos is trying his best to flush the pensioners out.
The comedy is kind-hearted and observational with some screwball-style verbal exchanges, and without descending into a city slickers vs country bumpkins style movie this would undoubtedly become if it was made in the UK or US. Similarly, the relationship between the Lavička kids and the old man could end up quite treacly in a Hollywood version, whereas here the dynamic is played with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Sure, the family grow fond of the old man but they still want him out of the house, and eventually resign themselves to the fact that he’s likely to be a permanent fixture until he snuffs it.
Na samotě u lesa is a family favourite in the Czech Republic, and Menzel doesn’t seem to have any agenda beyond creating an entertaining movie. He definitely does that, and with its idyllic portrait of rustic country living, I can see why Czechs love it so much. It’s the movie equivalent of a peaceful weekend in the nature.