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