Up and Down (2004)

“A person takes risks like this to visit Thailand and eat deep fried bat.”

After recently watching and really enjoying Beauty in Trouble a Czech film from director Jan Hrebejk, I decided to track down more films from this director. This led me to Up and Down (Horem Padem), a wonderful film that explores modern Czech life through a handful of diverse characters.

The film begins with a truck full of illegal aliens being taken across the Czech border by a couple of moronic traffickers. Obviously bored to tears with what appears to be a fairly regular back-and-forth trip, the traffickers amuse themselves by discussing foods from various countries. After a close call at a border crossing, the truck passes into Czechoslovakia where the aliens are unceremoniously dumped in a forest. In their haste to dump the aliens, however, the traffickers leave a baby in the back of the truck, and discover their tiny contraband miles later. While one man wants to abandon the baby in the snow, the other one, cradles the baby to his torso. But lest we think this means the man has a shred of humanity, he doesn’t. He takes the baby to a pawn shop and there the owners conceive of selling the baby on the black market.

Enter childless couple Miluska (Natasa Burger) and her burly, ex-con, security guard husband, Frantisek Fikes (Jiri Machacek). Miluska (Mila)  tries stealing a baby but that doesn’t work, and so she buys one instead. It seems like a reasonable solution to her.

The theft of the baby is tentatively connected to another Czech family–although the connection isn’t apparent at first. Martin (Petr Forman) who now lives in Australia, returns to Czechoslovakia after decades of absence when he gets the news that his estranged father, professor Oto Horecky (Jan Trsika) has a brain tumor. This brings Martin’s hostile, alcoholic mother Vera (Emilia Vasaryova) into direct communication and conflict with her husband. He now lives with a much younger woman, immigrant advocate Hana (Ingrid Timkova)  and they have a teenage daughter, Lenka (Kristyna Bokova) together. This union is particularly bitter to Vera (“an old Russian translator with a substantial Czech beer habit“) as she lives in a tiny cramped apartment in an impoverished area while her estranged husband managed to reacquire the gracious home they once owned together.

As these characters move Up and Down within Czech society, the  film follows their lives with tale with irony and biting wit. There’s professor Oto who teaches about the Czech diaspora, and he is directly responsible for the breakup and emigration of his son to Australia. To Vera, her husband Oto is a like a phoenix “always rising from the scorched earth around him with fluffy new feathers.” And the fluffy new feathers in this case is a direct insult to Oto’s younger, attractive common-law wife.  This is just one of the places that the idea of Up and Down comes in. Vera’s fortunes have plummeted while Oto has done well; his family has borne the consequences of his actions while he’s emerged unscathed.

Martin, who’s been away from his family and Czechoslovakia for a long, long time arrives only to rush slap bang into racism, crime and the suffocation of a family in which the parents still squabble and demand he takes sides. The scenes in Australia present such a contrast–the New World vs the Old. Open spaces and mixed society vs. cramped flats and racism. No wonder it’s taken Martin such a long time to come back for a visit.

But by far the best sections of this lively film contain soccer fan Frantisek. he suffers from a cleft palate, is none too bright, and he’s led into trouble by the violent, racist “Colonel” (Jaroslav Dusek)–another soccer fanatic who demands loyalty, obedience, and the proper homage and obsequiousness to soccer and its rituals. Soccer is the single most important thing in Frantisek’s life until the baby arrives, and then he’s prepared to buck the Colonel, cast soccer aside and keep his new ‘son’. How these characters connect as they move up, down and around through Czech society is the substance of this gently humourous film, yet poignant film. As I watched the film’s final scenes, I decided I’d really watched something quite extraordinary, and for that reason, I’m adding Up and Down to my film collection.

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