13 TREASURES is a feature intended simply as a platform for recommending and exploring the virtues of exceptional but little-known contemporary films that contribute to a rich and alternative cross-section of contemporary cinema and are worth raving about to the world. Be they bona-fide classics not known outside their home country, obscure short-films of exceptional impact and style, or potential cult favorites that never made it into theatres, every one of the films I’ll be covering is nothing short of a must-see for those hungry for a distinct taste of the unusual, the alien and the original.
In this first installment the Czech New Wave sensibility meets contemporary Czech comedy in a meditation on the flimsiness of masculinity and the unsexiness of sex in Moravia…
>>> NUDA V BRNĚ: KOMEDIE NAVZDORY OSUDU (BORED IN BRNO: A COMEDY ABOUT DEFYING FATE) (2003, Czech Republic, 103’) Dir. Vladimír Morávek – Scr. Vladimír Morávek/Jan Budař – DP. Daviš Marek – Music. Jan Budař – Edit. Jiří Brožek – Prod. Čestmír Kopecký
One of the perennial charms of Czech culture is its artists’ willingness to be at once cruelly self-deprecating and staunchly proud of the distinct Czechness that informs the attitudes and behaviors they criticize. Even now that Czech cinema has more or less settled on a regular out-put of films unlikely to rock the boat beyond the comfort of home, the anarchic paradox at the heart of most Czech humor remains vital to the definition of Czech culture and the enduring appeal of Czech comedy, from Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk to Miloš Forman’s endeavors in Hollywood. The self-effacing veneration of Czech belligerence and curmudgeonliness is peppered throughout many of the nougatry contemporary comedies to come out of the Czech Republic in recent years, such as Jan and Zdeněk Svěrák’s VRATNÉ LAHVE (EMPTIES) and Jiří Vejdělek‘s ŽENY V POKUŠENÍ (WOMEN IN TEMPTATION) and will continue to enrich Czech comedy far into the future. But for the most nuanced and original contemporary examples of this definitive feature of the Czech cultural mindset one must look no further than the collaborations between director, Vladimír Morávek, actor, Jan Budař and producer, Čestmír Kopecký.
In their two films together, the trio tapped both Czech culture and the universal appeal of love amongst the meek to create unique and even timeless interpretations of the ludicrous and often pathetic lives bubbling-away in the Bohemian and Moravian capital cities. Immediately successful upon release, BORED IN BRNO indulges the dual Czech obsessions of sex and food to great effect in the story of two mentally challenged youngsters meeting one night to lose their virginity and crossing the paths of various neighbours seeking love and gratification along the way. The 2005 follow-up, HRUBEŠ A MAREŠ: JSOU KAMARÁDI DO DEŠTĚ (a.k.a.: HRUBEŠ AND MAREŠ: FRIENDS COME RAIN OR SHINE) hinged on the conceit of the most heartless, pathetic bastard in all of Prague and his only friend being led to believe that he has been chosen as the latest incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Though equally as original and even more ambitious than BORED IN BRNO, HRUBEŠ AND MAREŠ… underperformed at its native box office. It was simply too cynical and tonally muddled for most critics and viewers to swallow. Its brutally dark vein of humor did little to offset the mishandled 3rd act gear-shift into out-and-out drama and its apparently mean-spirited approach to its central satire of two losers duped by an unscrupulous documentary filmmaker stood in stark contrast to the sympathetic depiction of the common residents of Brno and the impeccably judged drama of the 3rd act, which made BORED IN BRNO such a memorable success with Czech audiences in 2003.
As a gateway into contemporary Czech comedy, BORED IN BRNO is too singular and off-beat to align viewers’ expectations with the general out-put of a country that has boasted many gifted comedic actors, writers and directors throughout history. As an arrestingly emotional and deeply artistic synergy of hilarious characters, deft comic timing behind the camera and heart-felt meditation on the anxiety we all experience in our search for love in a grimly unromantic world, BORED IN BRNO is a world-class gem of immaculate filmmaking and typically eloquent Czech story-telling.
Though based on the story, Standa Debutuje (Standa’s Debut) by Pavel Bedura, Morávek, Budař and Kopecký, reportedly conceived their script in a bar when discussing their experiences losing their virginity. All the neuroses, uncertainty, pathos, humor and awkwardness there involved pervades this gloriously youthful but wise and adult pean to the follies of those desperate to love and be loved.
Budař plays Standa, a mentally disadvantaged young man on his way to Brno under the care of his laconic brother, Jaroslav (the wonderfully dweeby Martin Pechlát), to spend his first night in bed with his pen pal girlfriend, Olinka (Kateřina Holánová), also mentally (and dentally) challenged. In Brno, Olinka’s girlfriends buzz around her, offering advice and culinary tips left-right-and-center, whilst Olinka worries about her controlling mother (Jaroslava Pokorná) and the extreme lengths she must go to to keep her out of the picture until Standa’s visit is concluded.
Parallel to Standa and Olinka’s blossoming relationship, aging Moravian TV actor Norbacher (Brno’s famous native thesp, Miroslav Donutil) seeks understanding and excitement in the company of stern motivational psychologist Vlasta (Pavla Tomicová). A shy student, Jaroslava (Ivana Uhlířová), unadvisedly indulges the emotional shortcomings of übercreep Richard (the perennial slime-ball of 21st Century Czech cinema, Marek Daniel). Bakery deliverymen and best friends, Honza (Pavel Liška) and Pavel (Filip Rajmont), enter into a revelatory phase in their life-long friendship. Jaroslav hopes he might one day raise his quota of bedroom conquests beyond the number he can count on one hand (with fingers left to spare).
Firstly, making a film about a protagonist losing their virginity leaves few options for the writer. Either they can take the viewpoint of a teenager and risk entering the justifiably stigmatized realm of teen comedy or they can create a character losing their virginity at a much older age, which carries the problem of presenting a character with whom the audience can sympathize (though American comedy maestro Judd Apatow achieved this very feat with great aplomb in his Concept=Title debut, THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRIGN, two years later). Endowing Standa and Olinka with acute mental disabilities allows the characters to embody not only the nerve-racking ignorance of youth but also the emotional frankness and honesty lacking in most adults. The filmmakers received some criticism for this – understandably so, as no definition of said disabilities is ever given, save for Standa being described as “a little slow”. But the refreshing disregard that Czech comedy has for political correctness and the fact that Standa and Olinka’s disabilities are never played-up for laughs beyond the awkward nervousness that everyone experiences around their first kiss or first shag elevate the film above crass exploitation. Had the script been pitched in Britain or France it would surely be shot-down for diverting attention from the characters’ disabilities and not “tackling” the issue of severely disabled people’s sexuality. Pitched in Hollywood it would likely become a universally maligned schmaltzathon, perhaps with Adam Sandler or Robin Williams opposite an actress whose career would immediately crawl into the desert to die, along with the film’s box-office potential. Something must also be said here for the contrast between mainstream British and American filmmakers’ treatment of sex and the Czech approach. Where most English language films still rely greatly on the notion that sex is somehow sacred, few Czech filmmakers have failed to exploit the inherent absurdity in the idea of two people rolling around naked, sweating and grunting their way through the endless tug-of-war between dominance and vulnerability.
The screenwriters’ irreverent but emotionally honest treatment of sexuality and the tone of the film’s observational and alternatingly dark and farcical sense of humor are indicators of the film’s distinct Czechness, recalling the New Wave work of Jiří Menzel, Miloš Forman and Věra Chytilová. BORED IN BRNO perfectly exemplifies the importance many Czech filmmakers place on the problems of the ordinary citizen as opposed to the pomp of ideology of aspirational hero-worship.
Throughout, BORED IN BRNO returns to the poorly hidden vulnerability of men; a concern not so elegantly laid bare in an early scene in which Jaroslav is teaching Standa how to put on a condom, using a rohlík (Czech bread roll) as a mock penis. It is ugly and fragile and its vulnerability is swiftly demonstrated by a cut from the forlorn, sheathed rohlík to another being sliced into canapés by Olinka. The perspective emerges that, in love, the average man is like a child playing with toys, which are too big and complicated for him to understand. This childishness leads to an abundance of comedy and pathos, ranging from simple incompetence in the bedroom to more Freudian concerns.
Almost every male character in the film is in search of a woman capable of providing a mother’s talents: love, comfort and authority. Jaroslav is in search of verification of his manhood, which is best obtained by the approval of an older woman – in this case Olinka’s sexually aggressive and mature neighbor, Jitka (Simona Peková). Jaroslav is also in search of this approval by playing to masculine notions of sexuality, which involve swinging his quota of conquests in the face of his opponents/subordinates. The reality of filling this quota proves too intimidating when his sexual inexperience collides with Jitka’s voracious appetite and he winds-up dangling from a window ledge like a boy whose favorite game has proved physically dangerous. Superloser, Richard is in search of punishment and humiliation for his perverse manipulation of women for sex and is the only chauvinist (in fact, the only man with a truly poor opinion of women) in the film. Though his thirst for punishment stems from his degradation of lost naïf, Jaroslava, (in a remarkably cringe-worthy sex scene) he is none-the-less demanding the punishment and engaging Jaroslava in a game played on his own terms without thinking of whether or not he should fulfill her needs. Like many of the other men in the film he finds that his partner is unwilling to provide the maternal trait he is after. Norbacher retreats into the maternally proportioned bosom of Vlasta when his impotence rears it ugly head (or rather fails to) and quashes any hope of the extra-marital affair needed to reinvigorate his lust for life.
Although all of these characters have their own problems and personalities with which to engage the audience in the story and its many facets they all have relatively simple and selfish objectives compared with Standa and the film’s one gay couple, Pavel and Honza. Honza’s extensively vocalized heterosexual appetite is very clearly defined (amazingly so, by the character himself) as being a supplement for his lack of a person who loves him. The fact that he doesn’t specify that this person must be a woman suggests that somewhere in his subconscious Pavel’s loving gaze has been acknowledged and even indulged.
Standa is seeking the same comfort from Olinka. As the film’s angel-like narrator indicates whilst introducing characters to the audience, Standa already has his caring and powerful parent figure in Jaroslav. What he seeks from Olinka is full equality and companionship. It is of little importance to the analysis of Standa’s character that he is not the sexually dominant member of the relationship as he is clearly more mentally challenged than Olinka (who cares not a jot about it) and his anxiety is used as a very effective device by the two male writers to convey the absurdities young people must endure in the campaign to pop their cherry.
Olinka’s initiation of foreplay – including her invitation for Standa to stay over – is significant in its relation to other Czech films in which the men assume an almost subordinate role in the bedroom. All but one of the male characters is a protagonist searching in vain for his sense of masculinity and how it might relate to love. Richard is the only male antagonist in the film and his purpose is to remind the audience that men are still dangerous animals capable of brutalizing a woman’s sense of self-worth. However Morávek and Budař don’t infer sexual irresponsibility on their male characters (except vile, creepy Richard). These lads are just children playing with big toys – many with selfish intentions, sure – but they do so with compassion. What is even meatier, though, is the question raised by the various levels of success each relationship can enjoy, as pointed-out in the following excerpt of a review by Jana Nahodilová for KinoKultura,
BORED IN BRNO poses serious questions about the traditional stereotypes of what constitutes a “healthy” relationship. After all, only the mentally disabled and homosexual couples achieve happiness. Those who are self-obsessed, manipulative, or too frightened to try, will never succeed. The film suggests that only giving oneself fully to the other through generous and selfless behaviour can provide the basis for a healthy and happy relationship.
The necessity of love to make a sexual relationship succeed (and vise-versa, by implication) is certainly strong within the film’s philosophy. Equally important to the success of Standa & Olinka’s and Honza & Pavel’s relationships is the ability to surrender to new experiences. It’s unclear as to whether or not Honza and Pavel will be able to mutually appreciate the potential for their relationship or whether or not they will even attempt to have one that is public. Although we are left confident that Standa and Olinka will stay together it would be naïve to expect that a film as frank and realistic as this would provide us with more than an open end to the possibilities of their future. (A heart-warming epilogue to Olinka and Standa’s first night together appears in HRUBEŠ & MAREŠ… when Olinka appears, visiting Prague with a new-born baby, and is harassed by Standa’s counter-ego, Hrubeš, also played by Jan Budař.)
Being a Czech film, BORED IN BRNO is well-endowed with food-for-sex metaphors. Whether substituting rohlíky for cocks or tomatoes for arses, it is a banquet of delicious symbolism. There is a crude but sly allusion to Norbacher’s sexual underperformance when he opens a tin of cod liver oil over his shirt. Close-ups of fried meat abound, as do rohlíky in various stages of consumption, decrepitude and even crushing by car tyre.
From the very beginning, BORED IN BRNO sets-out to succeed as more than a farce. The use of its stark black and white photography infers a drab grittiness on the distinctly unromantic lives these characters feel burdened by. The series of events that culminate in the climax demonstrate with great profundity the boundless potential for farcical comedy to cut deep to the core drama of ordinary lives when lovingly crafted by the deft hands of talented filmmakers. The alternatingly jaunty and ominous renditions of well-known Czech pop song, “Všechno se stane dneska v noci” (Everything Will Happen Tonight) connects back to the Czech New Wave’s characteristic use of naked thematic symbolism.
As one may deduce from the film’s subtitle, A Comedy About Defying Fate, and as with the greatest of Czech cinema, BORED IN BRNO posits that the struggle of the ordinary man and woman to find happiness in this world is at once a worthy cause and a punishment visited upon those too silly to realize how readily we heap humiliation and loneliness upon lives that we cannot help but take way too seriously. It is a rare gem, even within a cultural heritage as packed with staggering works of original and resonant comedy as that of the Czech Republic.
··· NEXT UP: My second treasure capitalises on the contagious and terrifying nature of mass hysteria in the name of visceral splatter, dizzying mind games and gallows humor in underexposed US budget horror, THE SIGNAL (2007) ···