An Earthly Paradise

in 32nd Moscow International Film Festival

by Daniel Rafaelic

The tradition of Czech film already taught us what we can expect — speaking of course in general terms. Bitter-sweet humour with a pinch of history. Irena Pávlasková’s film has all of that, and much more.

The film with the somewhat strange title (that originates from the Czech national anthem) starts with a typical portrayal of a summer family holiday somewhere in Italy. The year is 1968. We are introduced to the dysfunctional parents of Marta (Vera Cibulková) and Mirek (Miroslav Etzler), and Marta’s two teenage daughters, Majda (Dana Marková) and Gábina (Tereza Voríšková). After the somehow abrupt end of the holiday, the family returns to Prague — only to find that Soviet tanks have invaded the streets. This traumatic event reflects immediately on their so-called normal, everyday life. At the same time we learn that the girls’ father is actually the prominent theatre actor Pavel (Jirí Dvorák) who returns to Prague from his exile with his new wife. Marta also has an affair with famous dissident Jan Pavel (Ondrej Vetchý), the author of the famous Charter 77, whose character is modelled on Václav Havel. The private and public life soon become very mixed up and problematic.

The film is full of passion, wit, intelligence and history. Directed by the gentle hand of Irena Pávlasková, the actors are amazingly well guided through this emotional, yet very intelligent film. Although populistic on the surface, it digs deep into the realm of genuine human emotions, causing spontaneous reactions in the audience. Baroque in its disposition, An Earthly Paradise for the Eyes (Zemský ráj to na pohled) suddenly and unexpectedly introduced the viewer to an unbelievable blend of the erotic and politics, activism and music, liberty and terror. All of this is written with a wonderful directorial and female touch.

The film is likely to be remembered for two particular scenes. In one, Marta, Majda and Gábina intriguingly perform a subtle striptease for Pavel to Apollo’s song C’est la vie. This sequence is directed so warmly that every possible distaste could be successfully avoided (especially remarkable are the shots of their naked buttocks). However, the last scene in the film is probably most touching. When the police finally crack down on the author and the signatories of Charter 77, Mirek joins Marta and the girls again to drive the car not to the seaside, as they did in the beginning, but to the jail. Mirek places loudspeakers on the car and the again, Apollo’s C’est la vie starts playing. Marta, Majda and Gábina wave to the imprisoned Pavel. However, all the prisoners whose hands are only visible through the bars wave back to their invisible supporters. This scene would have been considered completely national and kitschy, had there not been the last shot of the police surrounding the family. They are rightfully frightened, and start to look in their pockets for their documents, but the shot freezes with the horror on their faces and stays like this for a while (with the C’est la vie still playing).

It should be added here that this film unfortunately received some very bad press at home. It is very strange to realize that such an important film about freedom in every possible way (political freedom, erotic freedom, intellectual freedom) is not welcome in the surroundings from where it originated. One of the Czech critics even called it “the worst Czech film ever”. One must wonder, however, how is this possible. Are the Czech still frightened to face their recent history? Or are we, the outsiders, just unable to understand the little local political games that involve culture production in almost every country? Well, just to let both sides know: An Earthly Paradise for the Eyes was awarded the FIPRESCI award at the 32nd Moscow International Film Festival, as well as the Silver Saint George for Best Actress for Vera Cibulková. Although the Moscow film festival ended four days ago, film has in the meantime won three more prizes at different film festivals. So much for “the worst Czech film ever”. Just keep making’em like this. We from the outside just love them.