Flower Buds (2011)

PoupataCzech Republic
4.5*

Director:
Zdeněk Jiráský
Screenwriter:
Zdeněk Jiráský
Director of Photography:
Vladimír Smutný

Running time: 94 minutes

Original title: Poupata

Misery loves company, and whatever shape that company takes, real or illusory, the happiness, however short-lived, can make for powerful storytelling.

The plot of the Czech film Flower Buds (Poupata) is steeped in distress and hopelessness, but it is a slow-motion car crash from which we cannot turn our eyes away even for a second.

Similar in tone, though not in style, to the despair that seeps through the work of Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Inárritu (especially in 21 Grams and Biutiful), Flower Buds is constructed out of small, well-chosen incidents that sustain each other and never come across as either contrived or superfluous.

Set around Christmastime in and around the small industrial town of Nové Sedlo in the north-west of the country, most of the scenes feature a factory in the background that pumps smoke into the crisp air of the countryside.

In the opening scene, we find Jarda at his post next to a railway crossing, where he receives telephone calls to inform him of approaching trains, as a result of which he has to lower and raise the boom for the odd car that passes by. After work, he heads straight for the local herna bar, or mini-casino, one of those infamous bastions of decadence found almost everywhere in the Czech Republic, where he exchanges yet another heirloom for a shot at the jackpot.

Jarda is, without a doubt, the most tragic character in the film, and Vladimír Javorský plays him without any sugarcoating. Though he is already on a steady downhill slide when we meet him, we quickly realise he has been caught in the web of his gambling addiction for a very long time. His wife, Kamila, knows the family is in dire straits (though she has no idea just how bad the situation actually is, or is about to be) and tries to help out by undressing to pose for a calendar, together with fellow exercise friends, with the goal of earning some extra money. Kamila has dreams of visiting the Amazon and believes her husband is saving up to make that dream come true.

Meanwhile, Jarda’s teenage son, Honza, is smitten with a stripper named Carmen, or Zuzana, who performs at the same herna bar from time to time, and he sets his sights on “saving” her, although he luckily doesn’t have any ambitions of being Travis Bickle.

The characters are all at the end of a slippery rope – we also learn early on that Honza’s sister is pregnant, though the identity of the father is left ambiguous – and have little to no hope of climbing back up. A Vietnamese couple, friends of the family, is also enduring enormous hardship. Despite having spent many years in the Czech Republic, they do not speak the language well and feel completely out of place in this place where it seems, from the look of the film, they have been condemned to an eternal winter.

Jarda tells them to get used to living here, to start thinking in this language and let it be a part of who they are, but it is difficult to consider him a serious model to look up to, given his own spiral of hopelessness. Viewers will find themselves easily sympathising with the Vietnamese couple, though, as their refrain of “Do prdele se sněhem!” (Roughly translated as “This snow can go to hell!”) is both endearing and a very understandable, perhaps even recognisable, cry for help, especially to anyone who has ever suffered from a feeling dépaysement in a new, very different environment.

On the surface, this is a small, character-driven drama set in a small town where the herna bar offers hope of a better tomorrow while at the same time crushing those dreams in front of our very eyes.

It is therefore refreshing to see how director Zdeněk Jiráský discovers surprising lyricism – beauty is too strong a word – in the rough elements that make up his story: a middle-aged woman in a red track suit doing her morning exercise outside in the snow with a fuming factory behind her; a drunk teenager dressed up as an angel walking around in the snow at night time, eerily lit up by the lights of the same factory in the distance; a short but agonising track-out from Jarda as he feeds his life insurance to the slot machine, a shot that embodies our desire to flee such a scene of desperation.

Flower Buds is an examination of obsession every bit as potent as Requiem for a Dream, but it is rooted firmly in realism rather than hyperrealism. This is an epically tragic film that is not at all a depressing viewing experience and demands to be seen.

In the Shadow of the Horse (2012)

Ve stinuCzech Republic

4.5*
Director:
David Ondříček
Screenwriter:
Marek Epstein
Director of Photography:
Adam Sikora

Running time: 101 minutes

Original title: Ve stínu

Ve stínu (In the Shadow of the Horse) is a perfectly controlled work of historical significance that is coherent and approachable even for those who know very little about the history of the present-day Czech Republic.

With the tragedy of history in the background, the film is more interested in the human dimension and takes as its centrepiece an honest policeman and his family who are all struggling under the burden of living in a society that is gradually becoming more oppressive and where the walls will soon have ears.

The policeman’s name is Captain Hakl, and, as played by Ivan Trojan, he is compassionate, especially in the moments when he lets his guard down around his wife and young son — and sensitive to the dangers they might face as a result of the government’s desire to hold on to power, even if it means stealing their own people’s money to do that.

The year is 1953, and rumours are rife the government is planning a monetary reform, which would mean that the currency loses its value overnight and the country’s citizens are left with a fraction of their former wealth.

But high-level government officials, including newly chosen President Antonín Zápotocký, deny they are considering a reform of the Czechoslovak crown, and even Captain Hakl believes he would know if such a big project were really underway. But his wife doesn’t have the same faith in the authorities as her husband and tells him they should draw all their money and invest it in art for the sake of their son.

The horse in the English title seems to be connected to a radio broadcast early in the film, in which the country’s finance minister, Jaroslav Kabeš, laughs off the implication that his office is making places to reform the currency, and states that this idea is a dead horse gossipmongers should bury instead of continuing to beat.

With whispers about monetary reform in the background, on the radio, from the newspaper vendor at the famous former tram stop on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, and most importantly, coming from Hakl’s own wife, Jitka, there is a palpable sense that the characters all know where things are headed but consider themselves unable to ask tough questions for fear of discovering they might be right.

There are many parts to this film, though it all appears to be deceptively simple. When a jewellery store is burgled in the middle of the night and a safe robbed of its contents, the police detectives track down the most likely suspect, a Jewish man called Kirsch, who Hakl soon realizes is innocent.

But innocence has no place in the machinations of the Communist Party’s police investigations and, soon enough, State Security, supported by an East German detective named Zenke (Sebastian Koch), makes it clear Kirsch is the man, even linking him with a bloody shoot-out at the post office, though here, too, Hakl has uncovered evidence that contradicts the official position.

The film is drenched from beginning to end, as director David Ondříček (perhaps best-known for his film Loners, or Samotáři, in 2000) makes it clear that in this world of gloom good men often cannot save themselves through their struggles. But, despite Ondříček’s sombre-toned images and the almost constant rainfall, the film never makes style a priority to the detriment of its story. The focus on character rather than form means this is a much more intimate take on the events surrounding the monetary reform, rather than merely a historical document.

Slowly, the real substance of the film comes into view, and what we get is a view of an honest man, a wife who feels loved but somewhat neglected and fearful, and a boy who will be his father’s age when the revolution eventually rolls around in 1989. The scenes between Hakl and his wife and son are devoid of sentiment yet deeply touching, thanks in large part to Trojan’s very measured performance as a man who knows it’s not easy to do the right thing but wants to be the father his son can be proud of, yet has to be mindful of the safety of everyone close to him. Trojan’s powerful depiction of a policeman in 1969 Czechoslovakia in the breathtaking HBO miniseries Burning Bush (Hořící keř) is very similar to his role here.

In the end, the scenes most often associated with this terrible era in Czechoslovak history — the show trials and the uprising in Plzeň — are either missing or downplayed. But instead of highlighting misery, Ondříček’s film has tender scenes with complex characters that reveal great humanity in the midst of such a thoughtful, poetic treatment of past injustices.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Czech Dream (2004)

Cesky senCzech Republic

3.5*
Directors:
Vít Klusák
Filip Remunda
Screenwriters:
Vít Klusák
Filip Remunda
Directors of Photography:
Vít Klusák
Filip Remunda

Original title: Český sen

Running time: 90 minutes

Vít and Filip are documentary filmmakers from the prestigious Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), who will use their documentary skills over the course of the film to examine the gullibility of the average Czech citizen in 2003 by using an approach with a wholly unreal central object.

In the run-up to the Czech Republic’s decision to join the European Union, the country was inundated by a very well-funded government campaign to nudge (or push) Czechs in the direction of voting “yes” in the referendum. The glossy campaign led Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, final-year film students, to consider the impact such marketing has on a population, especially when the goal (joining the European Union) is more or less intangible.

They decided to use money from the Ministry of Culture to fund a project that would see them advertise a new hypermarket in Prague. The hypermarket would be called “Český sen” (Czech Dream) and the prices would be a small fraction of those paid in other hypermarkets. This happened around the time the country was first introduced to big shopping malls and chain supermarkets with reduced prices where customers could buy everyday groceries in bulk and find everything they looked for in one store, under one roof.

Using one of the top advertising agencies in the capital, the filmmaking duo proceed as if the hypermarket is real, even constructing an enormous scaffold on an open field outside the city. For the duration of the campaign, the location of the shop is kept a secret, and the marketing approach is playful and unconventional, touting a big surprise for everyone who comes on the opening day and telling potential shoppers everywhere not to spend, not to come, not to bother. So, reverse psychology. 

But the approach is surprisingly effective, and the whole city goes into quite a frenzy about the ridiculously low prices on the advertising pamphlets, including an offer of a colour television set for $25. If things are too good to be true, they usually are, but it’s difficult to kill a dream before reality hits you in the face. The hypermarket also has television spots and even an official jingle, complete with violins and a children’s choir.

We know this can’t end well, with people necessarily being disappointed, but the film’s interviews with a wide range of people, all of whom pitched up one sunny May 31 to witness the opening of, well, not a shopping mall, shows the expected mixture of anger and disillusionment. Walking from the holding area across a large open field to the scaffolding behind which the new mall supposedly lies, one individual already questions whether this is what the country’s future looks like if it joins the European Union, with malls like these, in the middle of nowhere, sprouting up.

Introduced by the filmmakers on the empty space in the suburb of Letňany that would be the location of their prank, we are in on the joke from the beginning, but as we spend very little time with them when they are portraying themselves (rather than acting the parts of the managers of the new mega shop), it is difficult to judge their attitude towards the people they are duping. Do they consider themselves superior? Do they think they are smart and the average Czech is a stupid fool? Or do they ever realise that their marketing campaign was good enough to pique the interest of even the most sceptical potential shopper?

We don’t know, but the opening shot showing Czechoslovaks in 1972 queuing for groceries, which eerily resembles the hordes rushing towards the scaffolding on May 31, 2003, is an indication that the filmmakers themselves don’t think much has changed, although that would be a terrible simplification of the situation.

The film is funny and certainly succeeds in pushing the envelope while it peeks behind the scenes of the advertising business (with those working in the industry memorably claiming that they never lie, and have terrible moral qualms with the filmmakers’ empty promises). Their fellow cameramen are determined to get answers from their interviewees and deserve a lot of credit for their persistence, though ultimately we don’t learn much from this material.

Czech Dream is a film that made a big splash upon its release, because it changed reality in order to be filmed, which can be risky terrain for a filmmaker, and the film’s directors fail by not being more visible in their own work or explaining their motivations. During a final question-and-answer session with furious would-be shoppers, they try to justify their actions, but we are not convinced. The film is based on a clever idea with some nifty details that may be inspired by the production of a fake war in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, but suffers greatly from the underinvolvement of its central characters. At one point, a mother in a parking lot sings “Hey, ho, nobody home”, a very serendipitous moment caught on film by Klusák and Remunda, and one that is bound to stick in your head as you watch both the crowds walking across an empty field and the filmmakers speaking to the angry mob.