Bitter Observation Of A Society

in 17th Athens Panorama of European Cinema

by Atilla Dorsay

It was one of those indescribable, gorgeous springs. And it has lasted more than a season. Beginning around 1963 with a bunch of very talented directors whose names were Milos Forman, Jan Kadar, Vera Chytilova, Jaromil Jires, Ivan Passer, Jiri Menzel and a few others, the so-called Prague Spring produced, for a while, one of the most original and fresh films of Europe, which was also one of the many artistic elements which shaped the ’68 spirit to come. Films always with a very particular sense of humor, corrosive enough to expose the faults and the crimes of an oppressive regime in a post-Stalinian era where all kinds of artistic and social freedoms were wildly pushed aside by the Soviet-dependant local governments. But those young directors knew how to turn around the restrictions and how to express their ideas and criticism in very subtle ways.

Then came the definite oppression. Prague was occupied by the Soviet tanks the same year as the rest of the world was shaken with the ’68 youth uprisings and more freedom and radical changes in everything became the only fashionable slogans. But what can the artist do against armed forces? So, many took voluntary exile and Forman, Passer and Kadar found themselves in America. The ones who stayed could hardly continue to make films as good as their former masterpieces. A spring which would have not lasted very long, but still enough to mark the history of cinema.

We probably all thought of these when in Athens 2004, we found ourselves, as members of the first FIPRESCI jury there, watching a certain number of quite good films from Europe, in the competitive section of New European Cinema. At least, Fremder Freund and Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder from Germany, Gori Vatra from Bosnia, Pas sur la bouche from France, Bongiorno Notte and L’Imbalsamatore from Italy, Freeze Frame from Ireland were interesting enough to make our choice not too easy.

But then there was this little miracle. A film which brought back, years after, this particular and bitter sense of humour of the Prague Spring, a film which succeeded in staging a little comedy, but turning it into the keen observation and impressive representation of present-day Czech society. What a pleasure!.

Yes, I mean Champions (Mistri) by Marek Najbrt. This young director was born in 1969, one year after the Prague Spring was brutally ended. After studying social sciences and documentary filmmaking, he had made a few ‘audiovisual projects’. This was his first feature film.

The film starts a bit slowly. In this small forgotten village seemingly near to the border (but which one?), we meet a certain number of people. Karel, the owner of the only bar in town, who is forever broke and is trying to find money either by stealing from his wife’s savings or betting on an ice hockey game, which seems to be their main preoccupation and also a national sport in which the Czechs are brilliant. His wife Zdena is so bored and so lonely that she literally seduces the bus driver coming and going between the village and the outside world, thus creating the only link they have with it, next to the TV screen. The guy is elegant, a real ‘metrosexual’ as they say these days, passing half of his time taking showers and watching himself on the mirror.

Nevertheless the seduction succeeds, although the husband thinks that the driver is nothing but a queer. Then there is Jarda, the wheelchair-bound wise-looking observer of the life around him and his teenage son who’s only obsession is to sleep with Zdena. Then there are a few others, among whom the alcoholic and neurotic Pavel from Prague, who, after a bottle of gin falls half asleep and foresees the winner of the next hockey match. Thus the ideal partner for Karel who can, this way, win the money he needs by betting.

But of course there are also more serious things. Such as xenophobia and racism. So, the one among them who has gypsy origins, is a ready prey for all kinds of sarcastic jokes and even more serious accusations. Another one who dares to applaud the Canadian goal during a hockey game is instantly attacked and labeled as ‘not being a Czech’ and the old German living around with souvenirs is likely to please to no-one. The Czech Republic, as it is called since the big change is, like any other society, full of racist opinions and Karel’s bar is a perfect microcosm of this society.

Wonderful timing, flawless acting and the sometimes dreamlike sequences are among the assets of this new film from the Czech Republic. I bet its director will go much further.

Atilla Dorsay