Film notes: Vratné lahve/Empties

Vratné lahve
Directed by Jan Sverák
1h 44min, Czech Republic, 2007

Originally published on my Prague-based autobiographical blog, which I’m now selectively and slowly republishing.

If I’d seen Vratné lahve at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it won both the audience award and a special award for screenwriting, I probably would have been disappointed. Not because it’s bad, but because, when I’m at the film festival, my expectations are high, and it’s just not that good.

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However, yesterday I watched it in a theater full of Prague Czechs, and Marek. He enjoyed it quite a bit and seemed concerned that I enjoy it, too. He leaned sideways a couple times and whispered in my ear to explain a couple jokes.

“You unnerstand?” he asked.

“Yesss,” I hissed.

Because of the English subtitles, I was getting the jokes before the Czech audience was; and, there were a lot of jokes and a lot of laughter. I ended up having a pretty good time.

As I was writing this post in my head on the way to a cafe, I’d decided that the reason I didn’t take to it like everybody else — it’s the most successful Czech film since the fall of communism — was not because I’m not Czech, although I’m sure I missed quite a bit because I’m not, but because this film basically has only one character, and that’s the lead, Josef.

Everyone else — his wife, his daughter, his workmates, his friends — is written as a foil or a device to reveal more aspects of him. No other character figures in except when he or she serves that purpose. As a result, the film’s eventual depiction of a reconciliation, of sorts, between Josef and his wife, didn’t ring true for me; or, it only rang true if I accepted without comment the character’s essential selfishness. The sequence was sensitively directed but not quite honest.

It wasn’t until I got online and checked the film’s IMDB page, that I discovered that the actor who played the male lead also wrote the film’s story and screenplay. That explains a lot.

Still, the script is unique in that in gives a 65-year-old man a believable and sympathetic interior life, replete with sexual fantasies and a desire for rewarding, human work. He tries being a bike messenger but breaks a leg. He ends up working the window in an Albert grocery store where folks return their beer bottles, interacting with the (stereo)types there and concludes that he’s never been happier. Movies so rarely do this, give work and sexual fulfillment a serious treatment, for characters of any age, that it’s worth noting when one does.

In addition, Prague looks and feels like Prague as most Czechs must see it. The film opens with a lovely series of aerial shots of the city seen through wispy cloud cover, revealing, not Prague castle, or Wenceslas Square, but district after district of irregularly laid-out orange-roofed apartment buildings and paneláky, until finally the camera enters ground-level where it focuses on an advertisement on the side of a crowded bus, not a tram.

Nusle Most, Prague’s tallest and ugliest bridge, along with a section of loud, clattering train tracks, establishes location throughout the film. Besides being utterly non-interesting for tourists, the bridge is also known for its suicides. I doubt that many non-Praguers could make those connections but it’s a big part of the way the film creates its uniquely Czech tone.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the film; maybe I just haven’t been here long enough to get it. I admire it more for its direction than its script and I am always impressed by the depth of talent among CR’s small pool of actors. Empties is definitely worth a DVD rental, or a bargain matinee.

Watch the film in its entirety below, or buy the DVD on Amazon. [affiliate link]

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