Up and Down (Czech Republic, 2004)
Czech title: Horem Pádem
Directed by Jan Hřebejk
Given my personal experiences here in CR, I would find it hard not to warm up to a movie that tackles Czech racism and xenophobia head-on; but this one does it non-polemically and with such an intelligent, layered script, delivered via a collection of uniformly fine performances, and one masterful one from Emília Vášáryová, that I don’t have to make any excuses for it. It stands on its own and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
[caution: some spoilers]
This movie is a comedy, as director Hřebejk continually and wryly points out in the Making of… extra on the DVD, but like most Czech comedies, it has a black and serious heart. The initial set-up is brilliant. A couple of shady characters run an exceptional black market import business, exceptional because what they’re importing is people – refugees, mostly gypsies, or Romany, escaping the political, social and economic desolation of their home countries. Because the Czechs rush the refugees too quickly out of the back of their truck, and because one woman is ill, after depositing them in the woods just over the Czech/Slovak border, a woman’s baby is left inside the cargo area, nestled in a cardboard box, a box whose lettering is Chinese. Upon finding this out, the importers do what any enterprising Czech criminal would do if he stumbled upon a valuable commodity that wasn’t his: Take the baby to the bazaar, or what Americans would call a pawn shop.
But that’s only the beginning of the story. What proceeds from this hilarious and gasp-inducing preamble is an examination no less of the contradictions in the Czech national character, the tensions between wanting to preserve “their tiny little country,” as one particularly racist character calls it, for white Czechs and the realization that CR is already a nation of mixed nationalities and cultures – Vášáryová’s character is Russian; a teacher teaches a child, Czech-born son of an African immigrant; one of the shady characters is himself half-Romany; the man who briefly adopts the orphan baby is a skinhead soccer hooligan; the smug middle-class woman who works for an agency that helps refugees berates a gypsy man whom she has mistakenly assumed has stolen someone’s wallet. The ironies multiply. The chief irony, however, is that one of the main characters is a young Czech guy who immigrated to Australia to start a business and get married. His mother encouraged him, but also resented him for it, for leaving her behind. They love their country and yet so many want to leave. These sorts of conflicts have really fucked these characters up, so much so that they can turn from tenderness to cruelty in the same conversation, a trait you’d find familiar if you would spend any time here.
The self-awareness in this movie astonished me. Everyone is skewered and critiqued, every class, every race, and yet most are treated with humor, humanity and sympathy. With few exceptions, the detail and care given each characterization confounds any attempt to roundly condemn or defend any one of them as embodying any one flaw or any one virtue. Refreshing and encouraging. The only thing that kept me from giving this movie 4 stars was the tendency to view Western nations as bastions of racial harmony. The naiveté touched me, but also stunted the impact of the ending.
I’ve said it before in another film response, but unlike the vast majority of mainstream American movies, and many indies, the movies of Czech national cinema will tell you something about the people who live here. I’ve yet to watch a Czech film that taught me more, made me laugh more often, or gave me more to think about, than Up and Down. Even the lovely and funny panning/tracking shot that runs under the end credits caused me to readjust what I’d thought about what I’d just seen. By those standards, and with that final piece of evidence, it’s a masterpiece.