Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: My Sweet Little Village (Vesnicko ma strediskova, 1985), by Jiri Menzel.
Ask a film critic what the best Czech film is and they will probably tell you Marketa Lazarova. Ask a Czech, however, and they’ll more likely say My Sweet Little Village. Menzel’s second Academy award-nominated film often comes in higher than Vlacil’s wild and capricious epic in public polls, and it isn’t hard to see why.
It is another of Menzel’s celebrations of idyllic village life and the gentle wiles of country folk. In short, it’s exactly the kind of thing that still strikes a chord with many Czechs.
Menzel’s celebration of country folk
The story is about Otik (Janos Ban), a lanky, mentally disabled young man who works as an assistant lorry driver with his rotund, bumptious neighbour, Karel Pavek (Marian Labuda).
M. Pavek has had Otik under his wing for five years now, supervising his work and helping the boy with simple tasks like eating with a knife and fork. Otik idolizes Pavek, neatly shown by how he wants to match the older man’s step as they walk to work in the morning.
As the end of the season nears, Pavek grows increasingly frustrated with Otik’s simple-minded blunders. He asks to get him transferred to another driver for the following year, the surly and mean-spirited M. Turek (Petr Cepek). Otik isn’t happy with this arrangement, and accepts a mysterious transfer to Prague.
Although the heart of the film is the relationship between Otik and Pavek, there are numerous other characters and subplots in play. There is a wonderful turn from Menzel regular Rudolf Hruínsky as Dr. Skruzny, the community’s respected GP who divides his time dishing out pithy advice to his patients, rhapsodizing about the Czech countryside, and absent-mindedly crashing his car.
Subplots and chemistry
There is a feisty yet vulnerable turn from Libuse Safrankova as M. Turek’s frustrated wife, who is having a fling with a smart young guy from the city. Then there is Pavek’s eldest son, who has the hots for his sister’s teacher. The most remarkable thing about that story thread is the boy’s ginger poodle perm.
Janos Ban, the Hungarian actor playing Otik, knew almost no Czech, which may have contributed to his character’s sense of innocent bewilderment. Ban picked up a Best Actor award for his performance at the Paris Film Festival, and he shares great chemistry with Labuda. One performance doesn’t work without the other. Ban wrings out every drop of pathos from a mostly silent role, while Labuda does much of the heavy lifting.
Their physical appearance – tall and skinny/short and fat – invites comparisons to Laurel and Hardy, and the pair have a similar knack for slapstick. All that’s missing is an exasperated glance at the camera from Labuda to complete the Ollie connection.
As with all Menzel films I’ve seen so far, My Sweet Little Village is warm, funny, and effortlessly entertaining. At times it’s even pretty moving, although the screenplay is manipulative – the severity of Otik’s disability fluctuates throughout, depending on where the story needs us to be emotionally.
It is written by Zdenek Sverak, the man responsible for that other nostalgic Czech favourite, The Elementary School. While it isn’t quite the rose-tinted view that film offers, it is still a very sentimental portrait of village life. The screenwriter also has a small role as a visiting painter who shacks up with Ms. Kousalova, the object of the Pavek boy’s lust.
The idyllic countryside vs. the Prague Metropolis
From what I’ve seen, Menzel seems to be a humanist rather than an agitator. His agenda for his characters seems to be – “Hey, we’re all in this together, so we might as well treat each other decently.”
Any satire or political comment is usually so subtle that it borders on subliminal, although even the smallest jabs were richly appreciated by the audience during the period of Normalization. One exception is Larks on a String, which is very sarcastic about life in the CSSR – resulting in a ban until 1990.
In My Sweet Little Village, Menzel never misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of rural living over life in the big city. Hrusínsky’s character serves as a spokesperson, delivering lengthy passages of verse about the beauteous countryside, and reminding his fellow villagers that life is all cushty because they have beer, woodland, and beautiful girls following the city trend of going braless. The message of the film extends to this: sit back, grab a cold one and enjoy your lot in life, because everything is pretty sweet.
Compared to the bucolic paradise of the village, Prague is depicted as a soulless place. Otik goes for a job interview in a Formica-panelled municipal office then gets packed off to his state-appointed flat, in a newly built panelák somewhere on the outskirts of the city. To make his point clear, Menzel is sure to show Otik shuffling among droves of fellow proles, trudging along like the miserable workers in Metropolis.
By Lee Adams