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Czech imbalances

‘Rare Bohemian Cinema’ at the MFA
By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 23, 2006

060825_czech_main1
SOMETHING LIKE HAPPINESS: Can Monika and Toník find a surrogate family and true love together?
Just about everyone who survived the time with memory intact waxes nostalgic about the ’60s, but perhaps none more so than Czechs. In the spring of 1968, they had it made. The “Czech New Wave” was starting to take over the world of cinema with such films as Milos Forman’s The Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967), Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting (1966), and Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966). Under Alexander Dubcek, “socialism with a human face” was transforming the country and challenging the hidebound Stalinism of Moscow.

Whoops! Next thing you know, the tanks are rolling in (one of the last great films made in the Czech New Wave was Jan Nemec’s tragic, truncated documentary recording the Soviet invasion, Oratorio of Prague). Socialism lost its human face and the country’s New Wave was dispersed or squashed. Even after the Velvet Revolution, when the country peacefully achieved autonomy, not a genuinely significant film came out of either the Czech Republic or Slovakia. No wonder the upcoming series at the Museum of Fine Arts refers to Bohemian cinema as “rare.”

But not non-existent. In recent years there’s been a renaissance of sorts. I would suppose that this movement is being carried out by a small cadre of committed artists, if only because the same actors keep cropping up in different films in different roles, kind of like a Mike Leigh movie or a recurrent dream.

That’s not the only reason I come away with a sense of déjà vu. That magic spring of ’68 still haunts Czech filmmakers. The first image — foggy railroad tracks — of Bohdan Sláma’s Wild Bees (2001; August 31) seems to spring right out of the mists of Closely Watched Trains. Kája (Zdenek Rauser) resembles the sweet, feckless youth of the earlier picture, and though he doesn’t work at a railroad station, his disapproving father (who turns out to be a veteran of the failed 1968 revolution) does. Nothing wrong with allusions to classics, of course, but Bees also tries to recapture Menzel’s bittersweet, goofy-absurd, and sometimes sentimental spirit. Exchanges like the following come off as near parody:

400-YEAR-OLD ALCOHOLIC CRONE: What are you reading?
KÁJA: It’s a book about the universe.
CRONE: Do you understand it?
KÁJA: Some of it.
CRONE: I could sure go for a pickle right now.

This preciosity aside, Bees does orchestrate an oddball comic love triangle that’s a lot more refreshing and funnier than anything Hollywood has churned out this summer. Kája has a secret passion for Bozka (the ubiquitous Tatiana Vilhelmová), the hard-bitten, chain-smoking, pixyish salesgirl at the local store and the daughter of the town whore. On her mother’s advice Bozka has resigned herself to the attentions of Lada (Pavel Liska), homeowner, Michael Jackson imitator, and virtual village idiot. Enter Kája’s long-absent older brother, Petr (Marek Daniel), fresh from the city, to throw this provincial stagnation into a tizzy at a climactic fête straight out of The Fireman’s Ball.

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