Absurd Comedies: The Men With Good Eyes By Annika Koppel

in 10th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Annika Koppel

Are there any good black comedies among East European films which can be defined as depressing? The good news is: yes, there are some. The films Gravehopping (Odgrobadogroba) by Slovenian director Jan Cvitkovic and Wrong side up (Pribehy Obycejneho Silenstvi) by Czech director Petr Zelenka are both black comedies but Gravehopping turns into a tragedy at the end. Cvitkovic, who graduated as an archeologist, has never held respect for genre films finding them a silly limitation. His first feature film Bread and Milk (Kruh in mleko) was successful in Venice 2001 and since them everybody has waited for his next films.

Petr Zelenka, who is well known for his absurd humor and bizarre stories, has won several prizes in Cottbus before. Wrong Side Up, based on his play, is like a firework of absurdity that hardly gives one a moment to take one’s breathe. The protagonists in both films are men in their thirties. Pero, the leading character of Gravehopping, is a funeral orator, who pays the tribute to those who passed away. Therefore he thinks more than anybody else about what life really is and what it means when the end comes. But otherwise he is just an average man. His father has not recovered from his mother’s death years ago and makes unsuccessful suicide attempts. Pero’s friend Suki is fond of his car and has a deaf-mute girlfriend. Pero likes a girl who likes S&M games etc. Finally, the director makes a drastic turn. Some really bad guys get involved and suddenly the talk about life and death gains absolutely new and direct meaning.

Petri, the protagonist of Wrong Side Up is the one, who awakes trust and strangers say about him that he has got “good eyes”. He is just a guy from whom you should ask the way when you are lost in a city you never have been before. And people do not hesitate to ask him to do very weird things for them. As a good person, he has difficulties to say “No, thank you”. He tolerates almost everybody who steps into his life. But mainly, he is eager to get back his girlfriend Jana. This is not an easy task because he makes one faux pas after another.

Ivan Trojan’s face as Petri is really worth seeing when he witnesses all these bizarre things in his life. He looks a bit like Mr. Bean, but unlike him he is not so active – things just happen to him. Gregori Bakovici’s Pero is a melancholic funeral orator and village philosopher, whose appearance is more like a clown than an undertaker. He is a good man, but absolutely lacking ambition; he likes a quiet and peaceful life. At the dramatic end of the film he has ran out of words for funeral speeches and stands in the sunset, having lost half of what he had before. But was there any chance for him at all to change anything?

Both Pero and Petri are lacking ambition, staying more or less passive witnesses or forced participants for bizarre events which take place in their lives. They do not want to change the world, they just try to survive. Some people try to make use of them and it seems easy because of their “good eyes”. They are the eccentrics trapped by defining loneliness, somehow trying to resist which is funny. Women love them not because of their big achievements, but because of their “good eyes”. Both of them have problems with women and happiness, which seems to be in reach, but slips away.

Naturally we can find the roots of these films in the tradition of film culture of their countries, especially in Zelenkas’s case despite the fact that he had said he would like to be considered as a Czech Woody Allen.

Cvitkovic’s way differs, there are less intellectual games and sharp dialogue in his film, but more emotions. Both are interesting and worth seeing as a good example of East-European absurdist comedy.