Death comes to us all, and when that last moment stretches out to eternity, all men face the same questions. Have I lived my life to the fullest? Have I done the best for my loved ones? Was I man enough when circumstances demanded it? Did I dare disturb the universe? Did I get enough blowjobs?
Andělé všedního dne by Alice Nellis is a crass, tasteless and utterly depressing film. It tries to say things about mortality and kindness, but is literally about a man who thinks his life is shit because he’s never been sucked off before.
Ever reliable Bolek Polívka plays Karel, an ageing driving instructor stuck in a loveless marriage with his neurotic, sour-faced wife Marie (Zuzana Bydžovská). They’ve been married for twenty-seven years, but he’s never experienced the pleasures of oral sex. Karel has the hots for Ester (Klára Melíšková), one of his pupils and a recently widowed doctor. It is the last day of Karel’s life, and four angels arrive on earth to oversee his final few hours.
There are other characters vaguely populating the background, including Václav Neužil as a stalker, whose life will intersect with Karel’s at the most unlikely and inconvenient moment. Andělé všedního dne is a small film overcrowded with lots of thinly written characters, but its main dramatic thrust depends on this – will Karel die with a smile on his face?
Unlike where I come from in England, we tend to get long hot summers here in the Czech Republic. The good weather sets in towards the end of April and usually runs through until late September. It’s my ninth summer here now and each year, sometime around late August, when the nights are drawing in and there’s a breath of autumn on the breeze, I’m always struck by a bittersweet feeling. It’s a sense of longing and loss and melancholy, a sensation that has intensified as the years ticked down towards my 40th birthday. Somewhere inside I sigh and think, “Well, that’s another year over.” Followed by a nasty little whisper at the back of my mind, “How many good summers have you got left?”
That bittersweet feeling is captured so beautifully by Jiří Menzel’s Rozmarné Léto. I first saw it very early after we arrived to live in the Czech Republic, and initially I was quite dismissive of it. I hadn’t adjusted to the rhythm and pace of Czech films and to me it felt like a pilot for a sitcom, mainly because of its surface similarity to the long running British comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine, which followed the shenanigans of three retired blokes in a small town in northern England.
Rozmarné Léto is a perennial favourite in the Czech Republic. It is Menzel’s follow up to his Oscar nominated Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vančura. It’s a gentle yet neatly observed bedroom face about three old friends whose comfortable boredom is disrupted when a travelling acrobat rolls into town, and each one’s trousers are set a-rustling by his beautiful young assistant.
Surrealist and Avant Garde films aren’t always the most popular choice for the average movie goer. Until Leos Carax’s demented Holy Motors generated some outside-bet Oscar buzz a few years ago, I’d rather watch a compilation tape of hairy builders receiving a back, sack and crack before dabbling with the avant garde.
My perspective has changed slightly since then, largely on the basis of Denis Lavant’s incredible (literally) balls-out multiple performances in that movie, and two of my favourite films of the past few years are of the avant garde variety – Dziga Vertov’s hypnotic portrait of a city in Man with a Movie Camera, and Věra Chytilová’s playful yet provocative Daisies.
A cornerstone of the Czech New Wave, Daisies tells of two young women, known as Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who declare that they are broken and in that case, they might as well be bad.
Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) is an immensely satisfying tragicomedy set in the months preceding the fateful Prague Spring of 1968. It’s a robust family drama featuring some wonderfully poignant comic performances from a formidable cast of Czech and Slovak character actors.
The picture opens in the winter of ’67, and lovelorn teenager Michal Šebek (Michael Beran) wants to end it all. He is hopelessly in love with his upstairs neighbour Jindřiška (Kristýna Nováková). The trouble is, she is going out with his much cooler mate Elien (Ondřej Brousek), who gets all the latest movies, music and fashion from his parents living in the States.
To make matters worse, her father, Mr Kraus (Jiří Kodet) is a rabid anticommunist and war hero, and often has flaming rows with Michal’s own father. Mr Šebek (Miroslav Donutil) is a staunch supporter of the Communist government, an army officer so petty and regimented that he types out a weekly menu for his family.
Living here in Brno, Czech Republic, I’ve spoken to many other expats over the years about Czech film. Most don’t watch them – sure, they’ve seen a few of the biggies, but generally people don’t bother unless they have to. They tend to find them slow, boring and difficult to engage with, and Czech humour doesn’t seem to translate well on film – to those not on the right wavelength (and I include myself in that category), it tends to be a little too bitter and deadpan, or too broad and nostalgic.
As a Brit, the former usually works better for me, as our own humour tends toward the straight-faced and understated, whereas the broadest excesses of Czech comedy reminds me more of the bawdiness of our 70s sex farces.
The Elementary School (Obecná škola) is a sweet-natured coming-of-age tale set just after WWII, “after the Fascists have been defeated, and before the Communists have won.” It swings towards the broad and nostalgic end of the Czech comedy spectrum, but is a genuinely funny movie. Oscar winning director Jan Svěrák (Kolja) demonstrates a deft touch for slapstick and draws excellent comic performances from his small cast.
Miroslav Krobot’s morosely funny Nowhere in Moravia is a downbeat portrayal of small lives, set in a tiny village where life takes forever.
The opening hours of the local hospoda marks the passing of time, and there are two main ways out – by bus and by coffin. Buses aren’t very frequent, so the villagers eat, drink and screw the days away until death finally comes along to relieve them of their boredom.
If you think that sounds pretty grim, then you’re right – it is.
Having said that, I laughed far more during Nowhere in Moravia than I do in most mainstream American comedies these days, and there is much joy to be had from the bric-a-brac of ordinary life tucked in the corners of cinematographer Jan Baset Střítežský’s gorgeous compositions.
Some of the more farcical elements could be straight from the pages of Hrabal, and a thread of small-town ennui traces back at least as far as Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer), although the bittersweet fatalism of Menzel’s work curdles into outright pessimism in Krobot’s film debut.
Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) is probably one of the best known Czech films beyond the country’s borders, having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. Adapted from Bohumil Hrabal’s slender novel, it was also the first Czech movie I saw by a long way, years before the idea of even visiting the country crossed my mind, let alone immigrating here.
I was pretty underwhelmed on first viewing – it was when I was first getting heavily into film, after the treble-whammy of Pulp Fiction, Seven and Trainspotting first made me conscious that there was a director behind the camera making decisions resulting in the movie I saw up there on the big screen. I could handle the nonlinear structure of QT’s early efforts, but struggled a bit with the rhythm and pace of my first Czech movie – having been brought up on a diet of largely British and American films, usually with a distinct beginning, middle and end, Closely Watched Trains seemed a lot like all middle with a little bit of end.