Apart from being a familiar face in many of the Czech movies I’ve watched over the past two years, Bolek Polívka is omnipresent in my adopted hometown Brno. He stars in public service videos on the trams and peers out of billboards advertising his latest stage performances and is often spotted drinking in the bar at his theatre, Divadlo Bolka Polívky.
His ubiquity also serves director Jan Hřebejk well in his hat trick of turn-of-the-century hits: Cosy Dens, Divided We Fall and Pupendo.
A bittersweet comedy set in the early ’80s, Pupendo makes an entertaining companion piece to Cosy Dens. They focus on life under Communism, centred around families headed by two very different men, both physically and ideologically…
Polívka stars as Bedřich Mára, a once-celebrated sculptor who has lost his job at the university due to his outspoken criticism of the regime. Now almost forgotten to the art world, he makes a meagre living selling kitschy ceramic pigs. Disheartened, he sits around drinking, smoking and antagonising his long-suffering wife Alena (Eva Holubová).
To settle an argument one night, Mára brings home a man he finds rummaging through the bins for dinner, mistaking him for a homeless person. The man turns out to be the esteemed art historian Alois Fábera (Jiří Pecha) who has fallen on hard times. Responding to Mára’s kindness, Fábera starts working on a piece about the disgraced artist in the hope that it will generate some more work for him, either home or abroad. Mára is broke but doesn’t want to work on any Socialist projects, but reluctantly accepts a commission from a local high school to complete a mural.
The project is the baby of the bumptious school principal, Míla Brecka (Jaroslav Dušek), whose wife Magda (Vilma Cibulková) is a former fellow student of Mára. Mila and Magda sacrificed any ideals they might have had long ago to carve out a comfortable life for themselves within the Socialist system. It all goes well until they hear Fábera’s work on the forbidden radio station Voice of America and realise that it might not go down too well with the authorities. With potentially damaging consequences for themselves…
While Cosy Dens is a comical clash between warring fathers and Divided We Fall is an intense drama about a life-or-death situation, Pupendo is very much about an artist’s struggle. It makes it more of an introspective affair which is not as easily accessible as its predecessors.
The thing that makes Pupendo stand out is the quality of the performances. Polívka really seems at home in the frustrated artist’s skin, and his character’s arc allows the actor to display his full range. When Mára is busy boozing and wallowing in self-pity, we get shades of his iconic role as the village layabout-turned-millionaire in The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday. As the temptation of real work reawakens the fire in his belly, Mára emerges as a far more courageous and generous character who has suffered for staying true to himself.
Polívka is brilliantly matched by Dušek as the rigidly conformist principal, Brecka. As with their roles in Divided We Fall, and to a lesser extent in Cosy Dens, there is a fascinating contrast in the two men’s physicality. In all three films, Dušek creates some memorably grotesque characters. They are strange and comically uptight men but he plays them seriously, and they become simultaneously loathsome and pathetic.
The two lead actors receive excellent support from Holubová and Cibulková as their wives, who also show interesting contrasts. They are exasperated by their husbands’ eccentricities but are both formidable when the poop hits the fan. Late in the film, there is a lengthy scene featuring all four actors working off each other in a heated conversation, and Hřebejk simply steps back and lets them showcase their skills.
Like Cosy Dens, there is a couple of subplots involving the teenage kids of both families. Unfortunately, the younger actors are under-served by the story and they disappear for long stretches while we focus on Mára and his problems.
Cosy Dens and Pupendo are shot by regular Hřebejk cinematographer Jan Malír (who also worked on Divided We Fall) and share a warm glow that makes them feel of a piece even though they are set almost twenty years apart. Hřebejk is an unflashy director who values a strong script and trusts his talented actors to bring the story to life, as he also demonstrates in later films like The Teacher.
For foreigners, Pupendo probably requires some working knowledge of life under the Communist regime to get the most out of it, as it is quite a talky movie. It is a strong film that rewards the effort, thanks to the terrific performances and some well-timed comic moments. However, I would recommend acclimatising with Cosy Dens first.
This article was first published on Prague Daily Monitor.