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…
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 team mates 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…
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…
“What do you think of Slunce, Seno, Jahody?” I messaged a Czech friend after my first viewing of the lowbrow villagecore classic.
“Cheap jokes for people who vote Zeman.” Came her rather sniffy reply.
Sign of the times, I guess – I wanted to talk movies and she gets all political on me. Not that her reply was entirely unexpected. The film has a reputation of being loud, crude and stupid – pretty much how young progressive urban Czechs regard those living in rural areas, who tend to be the kind of people who vote for Trump-ish characters like the drunken, bigoted, chain-smoking President Zeman.
Make no mistake, Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely loud, crude and stupid. To give an example of the level of humour, one scene features a senile old lady trying to hide a turd from her overbearing daughter. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. However, the film has a directness that I appreciated, unlike the ponderous pace of so many Czech movies I’ve seen so far. It bounces along nicely with a goofy energy that I found genuinely charming.
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?
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.