Štěstí (2005)
Written and directed by Bohdan Sláma

Rick’s note: I’ve seen this film three times: First at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, once here in Prague at Světozor, and once on DVD.

The Czech language deploys this same word, the title of this film, for both happiness and luck; so language builds provisional assessments into the way Czechs conceptualize both. The ultimate meaning depends on context, like so much else in čeština. Where you eventually end up is just a sliver, just a shade away from being something else. Tak tak. Barely. Add to that, that one can have both good and/or bad luck and you’ve come a long way in understanding the way many Czechs look at life.

In that, if in nothing else, Czechs and I agree. Living here has taught me that unless you live in the now of doubt, trusting only in uncertainty, life will crush you. Duplicity is a word that makes sense in the West, where certain things can usually be counted on – family, work, friends, a stable government. Here in post-Communist Central Europe, it’s another level-headed survival strategy. Look at this excerpt from the film – the opening title credit plus two scenes – before you read further.

[Deleted by ning.]

The film introduces a few recurring elements in these opening sequences. The camera films, gracefully hand-held, even when there is no action to follow, or if the action is slow, and never gets put on a tripod even once. It often drifts past the center of the scene or wanders slightly off. Despite that, and in contrast to the quick-cut way hand-held camera footage is typically edited in a trendy Hollywood film, the shots themselves are long-takes, with the slow tracking movements of the camera conveying an unfolding sense of discovery and observation, mostly of character traits and interaction, rather than of activity.

Another motif is the look out the window. The film’s opening shot ends with an open window as a frame for the body of a pensive woman, whom the camera has followed to the window, accompanied by a folk song strummed on a guitar and sung by other people in the room. For someone who hasn’t seen the film, it’s a mysterious moment, a mystery, and not the only one, which comes from trying to figure out where they are – an abandoned building is the best guess, although there’s beer and everyone looks drunk. Although this woman will become of minor importance later on, the audience will not even be able to guess what she’s thinking about until much later. The way the film sets up development, even through the simple introduction of a character, necessitates provisional judgments about them and about their character, in the sense of what motivates them and what they believe is right and wrong. My feelings about each character altered throughout the film, often in subtle ways that I didn’t realize had happened until much later.

The film’s final shot is also out a window, this time a closed one. The camera tracks past the headshot of the character being observed and shoots what she’s looking at, through the window of a speeding train, something utterly banal, ambiguous and oddly uplifting — a pack of dogs chasing the train and trying to go as fast, their wild mouths slavering, in the joy of pointless pursuit. The character didn’t find what she was looking for, either, it’s true that no one in this film did, but what she’s seeing, perhaps more inside her own head than out in the real world, somehow satisfies her.

That’s the comfort of living a life of doubt: Nothing surprises you; you’re ready for anything. You’re ready to just keep running.