Czech Antics

How to goof around Prague when you're feeling a little old

In Autumn Spring, a bittersweet comedy from the Czech Republic, an aged ex-actor, Fanda, lives in bleak, unfulfilling retirement with his dour, too-careful wife, Emilie; he is forever pestered by the complaints from his hapless, thrice-married son. As he lacks youth, money, and health, Fanda's one pleasure is to make up new identities for himself, aided and abetted by his old show biz pal, Eda. Fanda passes himself off as an opera maestro, imperiously inspecting a huge country estate that's for sale, while an eager real estate agent hovers close by. In a Prague subway station, the old galoots pretend they are ticket inspectors in a successful ploy to get ticketless young girls to give them kisses in exchange for amnesty. Strolling out of a graveyard, Fanda convinces a passerby that he's the man's long-lost best friend, improvising a wild string of inspired lies to dupe the gullible stranger. Emilie, whose chief preoccupation in life is carefully saving their meager funds for their funeral and burial expenses, insists that Fanda act properly: "Stop playing the fool and take life seriously," she demands. But Fanda is taking life seriously. Though his deceptions and clowning ultimately have a serious cost, Fanda is waging a determined, desperate war of rebellion against the realities of old age.

Films on this subject crop up regularly, at least in international cinema. One example that screened in Miami recently is the fine Argentine drama Lugares Comunes. Autumn Spring opts for comedy, using a black, particularly Slavic sense of humor, making jokes about what otherwise would be downright depressing subjects. It is notable chiefly as the final film in the estimable career of the veteran Czech actor Vlastimil Brodsky, who died soon after this film was completed. Brodsky (Closely Watched Trains, Jacob the Liar) virtually embodied modern Czech cinema and also had a major impact as a stage actor. With a rubbery, sagging face and a shambling gait, Brodsky's deft, wry performance as Fanda anchors the film, ably abetted by Stella Zazvorkova as Emilie and Stanislav Zindulka as Eda. Zazvorkova does particularly well as a thoroughly conventional woman tortured by her husband's eccentricities.

All three performers enjoyed a career-long friendship that is palpable on the screen. It's also a pleasure to take a quick peek into ordinary Czech lives. Although many many films are now shot in the picturesque old sections of the city, the modern areas rarely are seen, at least in films that play here.

Stanislav Zindulka and Vlastimil Brodsky -- what are you two galoots up to?
Stanislav Zindulka and Vlastimil Brodsky -- what are you two galoots up to?

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The Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami

But while the performances shine, they can't fully illuminate Jiri Hubac's meandering script or Vladimir Michalek's listless direction. Michalek opts for a uniformly measured pace and uninspired camerawork that favors repetitive use of lateral dolly shots in almost every scene. There is precious little urgency or passion in this filmmaking. Most every aspect of it -- the direction, the production values, the editing -- feels workmanlike and wholly risk-free. As a result, much of the dialogue-heavy scene work, a courtroom sequence especially, is only marginally more compelling than watching paint dry.

When Brodsky began his long career, the Czechs were on the cutting edge of world cinema. Caught between national desires for freedom and crushing Soviet domination, Czech filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to say to the world. But Brodsky is gone now and with him a great era of Czech filmmaking. It has taken on the characteristics of European cinema in general -- careful construction, risk-free torpidity. Certainly films of far greater urgency, imagination, and passion are coming from Latin America and from Asia. Like old Fanta, European cinema seems on the way out.

 
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