Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk’s 2000 movie “Divided We Fall” was a depiction of Nazi-era Czechs sticking together in a time of crisis. It was a funny and touching film that earned an Oscar nomination (and would have won, had that not been the year of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Hrebejk’s new movie, “Up and Down,” once again shows Czechs helping each other, only this time it’s in the present, and some of the banding-together is for less noble purposes than the Nazi-evading of “Divided We Fall.”
There’s a subtle point being made here. The Czech Republic might be better off overall now that Europe is post-Soviet, but left to their own devices, people can be quarrelsome and greedy. At least an ongoing crisis keeps them in line.
Honesty is not a prevalent virtue in “Up and Down.” The movie is a crazy-quilt of disparate Prague residents whose stories intersect occasionally. The action begins when a pair of smugglers sneak a truck full of people across the border and afterward find that one of them has accidentally left her infant son behind. This being a capitalist system now, and these men being dishonest, they take the baby not to the authorities but to a pawn shop. Surely the proprietor will know someone willing to pay for a baby on the black market.
As fate would have it, a young woman named Mila (Natasa Burger) desperately wants a baby, going so far as to attempt to steal unattended ones at carnivals. Her husband, Franta (Jiri Machacek), once a violent soccer enthusiast, now domesticated and working as as security guard, is alarmed when Mila comes home with a baby from out of nowhere but is soon won over by the child’s potential. It’s a boy! An heir, a future soccer player.
Meanwhile, there is a college professor named Otto (Jan Triska) who is dying of a brain tumor and sends for his estranged son, Martin (Petr Forman), currently living in Australia. Martin’s mother, Otto’s ex-wife, is Vera (Emilia Vasaryova), an eccentric woman with a fondness for wigs and kitschy collectibles and a hatred for Gypsies and immigrants (she is not alone in that last attribute). She is still legally married to Otto, a fact he wants to remedy so that he can marry his long-time partner Hana (Ingrid Timkova) — who, it should be noted, was once the girlfriend of Martin.
Most of these people — including the smugglers and baby’s birth mother — eventually cross paths, but the film is not focused on coincidences or cutesy plot devices. It is content to show a variety of people in a variety of situations and to let us deduce what they have in common.
The commonality is that they are human: imperfect, prejudiced and often selfish, but still human and thus, in the filmmaker’s view, eventually eligible for redemption. The Czech Republic is still getting used to itself, still adapting to life after the Soviets. Hrebejk suggests, through this tragi-comic film, that while things are rough now, they’ve got to get better. I mean, they can’t get much worse, can they?
B (1 hr., 47 min.; in Czech with subtitles; )