The Snake Brothers (2015)

Two brothers – one addicted to drugs, the other yearning to be his own boss – make the most of their limited means in the bleak Czech countryside.

snake-brothers-kobry-uzovkyCzech Republic
4*

Director:
Jan Prušinovský
Screenwriter:
Jaroslav Žváček

Director of Photography:
Petr Koblovský

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Kobry a užovky

Petr, aka “Cobra”, is in his 20s and unemployed in Kralupy nad Vltavou, a town just north of Prague in Central Bohemia. He dyes his short hair purple, and in the opening scene we find him walking down an empty street with bolt cutters on his back. He notices a semi-abandoned wooden house and decides to empty it of its electrical appliances. Shamelessly, he piles them into a trolley – in full view of the gobsmacked neighbour – before heading back out.

His older brother, Vojtěch, aka “Viper”, is working in a factory but often arrives late because he so frequently has to deal with the police who phone him up at night when Cobra causes a public disturbance, yelling from the rooftops about his latest “plan”. Viper is tired of the factory work, exhausted because he is not sleeping enough and fed up with being told he is not pulling his weight. He tells his employer to go jump in a lake and makes his way to the nearest pub.

The Snake Brothers was directed by Jan Prušinovský and stars real-life brothers Kryštof and Matěj Hádek as the two fictional siblings. The characters in Prušinovský’s film have little chance or ambition to escape the closed cycle of existence in their small town, but the director is never too hard nor too soft on them, and sometimes their desperate acts can be simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous.

The main thrust of the narrative concerns Viper’s steady trajectory towards control, as he opens a clothing store and works hard to make it successful. His evolution into a master of his own destiny is helped, in no small part, by his unexpected decision to seize the moment and address a group of German businessmen in German, a language he hasn’t spoken since his East German father left the family years ago.

At the same time, Viper has to contend with Cobra’s ever-fried mental state and proclivity toward kleptomania in order to finance his cocaine habit. He also has to deal with his lazy shop assistant, Zuzana, who is unfortunately the wife of his best friend, Tomáš.

Although the relationship between the brothers is obviously front and centre in the film, Tomáš is easily one of its most interesting characters. Actor Jan Hájek channels a man who is focused, sensitive and patient, and he is perhaps the only person in the story whom the viewer can truly admire, although Viper has by far the most complex personality. 

Dialogue tumbles like a dirty river out of the characters’ mouths. In fact, they might just be the most foul-mouthed of any film this year (unfortunately, the English subtitles don’t fully convey the power and the unfailing filth of the original Czech), but our attention always remains riveted to what they are saying, and how they are saying it.

The language, sometimes comical but often used by people in desperate situations, is complemented by actions that are similar in kind and work wonders to prevent the audience from feeling like they are falling into the characters’ abyss of desperation. In one scene, for example, Cobra steals a phone from someone’s handbag at a party. The victim sees him, but instead of assaulting him in response, the lady merely takes back her phone and returns it to the handbag.

It is a small moment that elicits a big laugh and shows that the people around Cobra have understanding for him. He is not a threat to their existence, and while he is utterly irresponsible, there is no need for trumped-up drama to entertain us. In this case, on the contrary, it is the unexpected lack of drama that sometimes provokes our amusement.

What sets this film apart from other similar depictions of desperation in the Czech countryside (Zdeněk Jiráský’s incredibly affecting 2011 feature film Flower Buds / Poupata comes to mind) is that while it has many moments that appear to suggest a future of near-hopelessness for its central characters, the filmmaker does not put them through hell just to make a point or to stun us with despair. The scenes of Cobra getting wasted or going to the local gambling den to waste the money he has stolen from a vulnerable member of his family remind us of the constant monotony and melancholy in which he finds himself.

The final scene brings with it a shocking revelation that we don’t see coming, as we realise one of the central characters has become the replacement for one of the most despicable individuals in the film. To some extent, we are happy there has been development but mournful over the direction in which this has occurred for this person.

The Snake Brothers is presented very tightly with some highly commendable decisions made in the editing room, especially one late-night act of larceny that involves a television set.

Far from being the gloomy and/or uneventful work that similar features often want to be (like Flower Buds and Nowhere in Moravia / Díra u Hanušovic, respectively), this is a strong tale told by a storyteller in total control of his material, complemented by a wonderful soundtrack.

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 

Rams (2015)

Two elderly, taciturn sheep farmers who are also brothers have to work together in the face of a plague that hits their remote valley in northern Iceland.

hrutar-ramsIceland
4*

Director:
Grímur Hákonarson
Screenwriter:
Grímur Hákonarson
Director of Photography:
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Hrútar

The first scene of Rams, a film from Iceland that falls squarely within the country’s canon of beautiful and always-eccentric films of late, tells it all: In a valley called Bárðardalur, in the north Icelandic countryside, Gudmundur (“Gummi”), an old, bearded farmer, finds a ram among his sheep that is not his. It has clearly strayed across the fence that separates his flock from that of his neighbour. He calls one of them by name, strokes its face and then proceeds to take a ram into his neighbour’s house in silent protest at the transgression that occurred.

The neighbour turns out to be his brother, the similarly bearded, equally aged Kristinn (“Kiddi”). The two have not spoken for 40 years, and although the reason for this is never explicitly stated, the resentment from both sides is clear as day. Their tense silence could very well have to do with the fact that Gummi’s father did not want Kiddi to inherit the farm, but he has stayed on because their mother insisted on it.

They are also big rivals, as their respective flocks share an esteemed bloodline, and at this year’s edition of the annual competition, Kiddi’s ram prevails by half a point over Gummi’s prized tup. Gummi is naturally crestfallen, but after closer inspection, he comes to believe that Kiddi’s ram, and therefore his flock and all other flocks in the area, might be suffering from scrapie, which would be fatal to both the sheep and the entire valley’s livelihood.

It is to be expected that the two brothers, facing the worst crisis in their extensive time on this Earth, will be pushed together to tackle this problem, but their distrust and general dislike of each other certainly makes this a protacted call to collaboration, whence the film’s running but subtle comedy. Despite their differences – Gummi is the serious one, while Kiddi is prone to hit the bottle on frequent occasions and more likely to behave like a fool – they are also dedicated to their sheep, which for these two lifelong bachelors are just like their own flesh and blood. When tragedy strikes their animals, it is like they see their own bloodline vanish in front of their eyes.

Their attachment to the animals also extends into a very warm relationship with Kiddi’s sheepdog, Sómi, which steals every scene in which he appears. Gummi uses him as a carrier pigeon to deliver handwritten messages to his brother whenever the rare occasion arises for them to communicate, and Sómi is almost giddy with anticipation to oblige.

This anthropomorphism is the logical extension of the affection afforded to the ovine creatures, and screenwriter-director Grímur Hákonarson’s decision to imbue his animals with just as much humanity as his two-legged characters adds enormous warmth to the film. And warmth is certainly welcome in this desolate valley that has been hit by disease and remains exposed to the rigours of the island’s thick white winters. The final scenes, set during a blizzard unleashed on the surroundings of Gummi and Kiddi’s farm, is particularly harsh, and at a screening I attended the wailing gusts of wind ont he soundtrack literally caused the ground in the theatre to vibrate. 

As a final point, even though it does not shed much light on our interpretation of the film, it is worth pointing out that the title can equally refer to the two brothers. The men’s interaction and communication at the very end are intimate and more related to instinct than purely rational thought.

Rams is about silence and a secret shared with a combination of naughty subversion of the rules and a determined desire to uphold to the status quo, even when the course of life cannot be turned back, and life itself can barely be resurrected. The two main characters, offbeat as they are, have affection for their animals and even for each other, and their presence in the story brings out both the comedy and the drama of the unexpected situation they are confronted with.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015