Paradise Lost and Regained By Christina Stojanova

in 41st Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Christina Stojanova

Jan Hrebejk’s Beauty in Trouble (Kráska v nesnázich, 2006) shared ex aequo the grand jury’s special prize with the Bulgarian film Christmas Tree Upside Down (Oburnata Elha, 2006) by Ivan Cherkelov and Vassil Zhivkov, thus confirming once again the strength of the young Czech cinema or the so called Velvet Generation. It is enough to mention the international and domestic success of Hrebejk’s historical trilogy with the films Cozy Dens (Pel?sky 1999), Divided We Fall (Mus?me si pomáhat 2001) and Pupendo (2003), which put his name beside that of the Academy Award-winning Jan Sverák with Kolya (Kolja, 1997). In his first three features Hrebejk commented on major, tragic events shaping the modern history of the Czech lands: the Soviet invasion in 1968, the Nazi occupation and its immediate aftermath, and the communist persecution of artists and intellectuals. He also talks about the resilience of the Czechs who succeeded in warding off the most disastrous effects of these events thanks to the insular protection of family and friends. And while the sense of paradise lost elevates his trilogy to a very Czech tribute to family and home as sublime refuge in a world of political perils, his latest films, Up and Down (Horem pádem, 2004) and now Beauty in Trouble, represent a compendium of the existential loneliness and shared fears of his generation, dragged into the global village from the incubator nestled behind the Iron Curtain. Without losing the power of his unexpected ironic twists and macabre humour, Hrebejk is definitely moving towards a more internationally comprehensive film language which ensured the successful North American distribution of Up and Down last year.

Ana Geislerová is the star of Something Like Happiness (Štestí), a film released between the 40th and 41st KVIFF and already decorated with a number of prestigious international awards. It is also yet another Czech film to recently enjoy a successful North American distribution, and is made by another very talented young Czech director, Bohdan Sláma. In his second feature film, Sláma, pretty much like Hrebejk, remains loyal to the themes, characters and even actors he demonstrated such a passion for in his debut film Wild Bees (Divoké vcely, 2001). Wild Bees deconstructs sarcastically whatever is left from the pre-modern myth of the “wise old people” by showing a collective of working Czech grandmothers as a bunch of foul-mouthed sex-obsessed alcoholics. The film is a bitter sweet chronicle of life in a Moravian village, told in the style of the ultimate cinematic metaphor of disorder, Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967) minus its sarcastic edge.

In Something Like Happiness Sláma chooses a typically lower middle class urban location – a run down, high rise socialist prefab building, where his characters have befriended each other in their childhood, and still live. Here, as in his first film, the director focuses on unusual, typically Czech characters. There is Dasha, the schizophrenic beauty in trouble (Ana Geislerová), and her self-sacrificial friends, the romantic Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmovà, one of the stars of Wild Bees). There is also the drifter Tonik played by Pavel Liška, yet another star of the young Czech cinema, who — in the crash materialization of the post-communist society – has come to symbolize the marginalization of any and all idealistic gestures. Dasha, a single mother of two charming young boys, gradually sinks into a deep depression, and Monika and Tonik step in. This unusually challenging situation not only centres their lives, but also makes them aware they belong to each other. And although cured Dasha’s rude reclaim of the children seems to break them asunder again; although Monika somewhat reluctantly joins her boy friend in his successful endeavours in the United States, and Tonik disappears after the death of his beloved aunt, the ending of the film leaves us confident that sooner or later they would find each other again. In Something Like Happiness, like in Wild Bees, everyone seems to be on the move to somewhere exciting, but nothing really ever happens on the surface, or is categorically resolved. In the end, nobody really leaves — a superb metaphor for the stream of life, caught unawares. What really matters for Sláma is the subtle, psychologically perceptive dual movement of his characters towards each other and towards their true selves. The Film shows a movement whose masterful dramatization and visualization deal brilliantly with an extremely complex artistic challenge in our action driven film world.

The third film under scrutiny here is also focused on family relations and tensions between marginalized and main-stream perceptions about love and success – this time around those of a family of Czech Romanies. The Indian and the Nurse (Indián a Sestricka, 2006), the Czech entry in the East of the West competition, is the debut in fiction film making of Dan Wlodarczyk, a versatile documentary director with more than a dozen films under his belt, which probably explains the very well balanced film on a difficult subject. Marie, an educated girl (Denisa Demetrová) from a well-to-do Romany family falls accidentally in love with František, a self marginalized Czech boy (Tomáš Masopust), who works in a factory to make a living. In order to indulge his passion for freedom, however, in the evenings and on weekends he becomes an “Indian”, i.e., belongs to an already traditionally Czech past time, where a group of friends who take the philosophy and life style of North American Indians very seriously, try to reproduce as close as possible their way of life.

It is more than obvious that Marie’s newly found love antagonizes her brothers and especially her upwardly mobile mother, who insists that she marries her fiancé, the well-to-do Romany business man Martin. Martin’s “nouveau rich” lifestyle and philosophy, summarized along the lines “if you cannot beat ’em, join ’em”, curiously clashes with František’s romantic idealism. Quite predictably, Marie has on her side only her ailing father, who soon dies. Also predictably, František’s family is rather confused as to what to make of this relationship. To make a hopeless situation worse, Marie’s brother confirms the worst Romany stereotypes by beating František’s best friend into a coma and loudly bullying his sister for going out with a Czech loser who hides from real life in his strange hobby. At the open ending, tired and frustrated from the obviously irresolvable issues her relationship has caused, Marie leaves both František and Marin behind.

The social and ethnic tensions between the Czech mainstream society and the Romany minority has been the centre of public attention and the media for almost fifteen years now, and a few well known fiction and documentary films have centred on this subject with various success. It is enough to recall the much discussed and awarded Marian by Petr Vaclav (Czech Republic, 1996), a film about the doomed attempts of a Romany boy to integrate into the Czech mainstream. The Indian and the Nurse however demonstrate that the Czech cinema (and probably Czech society) has come a long way since, judging by the artistically balanced and emotionally realistic way the film deals honestly and maturely with issues of marginalization and racism on both sides of the ethnic divide.
In way of conclusion, it would not be an exaggeration to say that, of all post-communist cinemas presented at the 41st edition of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, the Czech cinema, viewed through the prism of the above discussed three films, included in prestigious selections, demonstrates its artistic health and thematic continuity. Expressed mostly in its profound interest towards important social and psychological problems, analyzed within the claustrophobic space of the family unit, this artistic continuity is marked by the specific, typically Czech eclecticism of form and style, mixing the tragic with the comedic, the surreal with the mundane, and the eternal with the ephemeral.The films of Petr Zelenka Buttoners (Knoflíkári, 1997), and David Ondricek Loners (Samotári, 2000) and One Hand Can’t Clap (Jedna ruka netleská, 2003) are characterized by experimental, open endings, implicitly exonerating their characters from the tyranny of the moral choices through the metaphysical vagueness of what the Polish-born social philosopher Zygmunt Baumann calls “postmodern morality without ethics”. But the quests of Hrebejk’sprotagonists resemble that of their classical counterparts and move steadily to a closure, paying “in cash” for their dubious moral choices. For Beauty in Trouble, their sixth film together, Hrebejk and scriptwriter Petr Jarchovsky take one more step towards the viewer, borrowed from the commercialized narrative structures of pulp fictions, in this case, the eponymous popular novel of Robert Graves.
On the surface, the story is about a struggling young woman, beautiful Marcela, played with gusto by the favourite star of the young Czech cinema Ana Geislerová, torn between her beloved loser of a husband (Roman Luknár) and an affluent elderly man (Josef Abrahám), whose money and wisdom could solve practically all of her rather serious problems. But the rich artistic and psychological portrayal of Marcela’s and her husband’s families and their intricate relations transcend the commercial superficiality of the serialized plot. Like in Up and Down, the tragicomic movement of intertwined loves and lives, told with visual elegance and tongue-in-cheek humour, coalesces into a philosophical metaphor about the courage to find and offer forgiveness, reconciliation and one’s own private way home and out of the existential and social chaos.