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.

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…

The heart of the film is the relationship between Otík and Mr Pávek, but there are other characters and subplots in play. There’s another wonderful turn from Menzel regular Rudolf Hrušínský as Dr Skružný, the community’s respected GP who divides his time between dishing out pithy advice to his patients, rhapsodizing about the Czech countryside, and absent-mindedly crashing his car. There’s a feisty yet vulnerable turn from Libuše Šafránková as Mr Turek’s frustrated wife, who’s having a fling with a smart young guy from the city. Then there’s Mr Pávek’s eldest son, who has the hots for his sister’s teacher. The most remarkable thing about that particular story thread is the boy’s ginger poodle perm.

János Bán, the Hungarian actor playing Otík, reportedly knew no Czech, which may have helped creating his character’s sense of innocent bewilderment on set. Bán picked up a Best Actor award for his performance at the Paris Film Festival, and he shares great chemistry with Labuda. One performance doesn’t work without the other. Bán wrings out every drop of pathos from mostly silent role, while Labuda does much of the heavy lifting.

Their physical appearance – tall and skinny/short and fat – inevitably invites comparisons to Laurel and Hardy, and the pair have a similar knack for slapstick. All that’s missing is an exasperated glance at the camera from Labuda to complete the Ollie connection, and I was also reminded of the dynamic between Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges and The Fisher King. There, Williams got the plaudits and the awards in the showier, more sentimental role, while Bridges put in all the hard work keeping the film grounded.

As with all Menzel’s films I’ve seen to date, My Sweet Little Village is warm, funny, and effortlessly entertaining. At times it’s even pretty moving, although the screenplay is so manipulative – the severity of Otík’s disability fluctuates throughout, depending on where the story needs us to be emotionally at any given point. It’s written by Zdeněk Svěrák, the man responsible for that other nostalgic Czech favourite, The Elementary School (Obecná škola) – and while it isn’t quite the rose-tinted view that film offers, it’s still a very sentimental portrait of village life. Svěrák also has a small role as a visiting painter who shacks up with Ms Kousalová, the object of the Pávek boy’s lust.

But here’s the thing – all the way through it, I couldn’t help asking: is this Communist propaganda? From what I’ve seen of his work so far, Menzel seems to be a humanist rather than an agitator, seemingly regarding the country’s fifty-odd years under Communist rule as a blip on the cosmic scale. His agenda for his characters seems to be – “Hey, we’re all in this together, so we might as well treat each other decently.”

Any satire or political comment present in his work is usually so subtle that it borders on subliminal. One exception is Larks on a String, which is extremely sarcastic about life in the ČSSR – which is no doubt why it was banned until 1990.

In My Sweet Little Village, Menzel never misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of rural living over life in the big city. To this end, Hrušínský serves as a spokesperson, delivering lengthy passages of verse about the beauteous countryside, and reminding his fellow village folk that life’s not so bad because they have beer, some woodland, and beautiful girls following the city trend of wearing no bra. The message of the film extends to this – chill out, grab a cold one and enjoy your lot in life, because it’s all pretty sweet.

Compared to the bucolic paradise of the village, Prague is depicted as a soulless place. Otík goes for a job interview in a formica-paneled municipal office then is packed off to his state appointed flat, in a newly built panelák somewhere on the outskirts of the city. To make his point clear, Menzel is sure to show Otík shuffling along among droves of fellow proles, trudging along like the miserable workers in Metropolis.

In the end – spoiler alert for My Sweet Little Village – Mr Pavek realises how much Otík means to him, and goes to retrieve him from the big bad city. They walk to work together again, falling into step naturally for the first time. Better still, now the status quo has been restored, the pair add a jolly hop and a bell kick to their routine. It’s Czech bumpkincore at its finest.

 

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