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Up and Down

Europe's "cultural meltdown" -- in the Czech Republic!

By 2.28.05

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Up and Down, directed by Jan Hrebejk and written by Petr Jarchovsky, (Divided We Fall) is in a way a contribution to the spate of highly politicized films about "globalization" but from an unexpected quarter. Most Americans probably still think of the former Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe as being ethnically more or less homogeneous, but those countries are beginning to experience the same waves of migration which are having such a profound effect on Western Europe -- none of them more so than the Czech Republic. Hrebejk cites as a principal influence Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), and it shows. Like that over-ambitious film about the international drug trade, Up and Down paints its portrait of social upheaval on a broad canvas which, if not so broad as Soderbergh's, is nevertheless broad enough to convey the impression of rather too much going on for the viewer quite to take in in under two hours.

He tells mainly two parallel stories, though there is a third lurking just around the periphery of the main narrative in the shadowy presence of a couple of people-smugglers and their underworld contacts. The film begins with the smugglers' truck ostensibly carrying furniture which discharges its cargo of Indian immigrants just over the border at Breclav. But a baby remains behind and, instead of dumping it in a ditch as one of the pair suggests, they take it to some people who run a pawn shop. "Know anybody who'd like to buy a baby?" they ask. As it happens, we know somebody. Mila (Natasa Burger) is one of those sad women who are barren but so desperate for a child that they are tempted to steal one from somebody else. Her hulking security-guard boyfriend Franta (Jiri Machacek) has spent some time in jail for soccer hooliganism, and so they are unable to adopt. Without telling him, she spends all their meager savings to acquire the Indian baby.

Franta is at first horrified -- both because Mila has done something illegal and so likely to get him in further trouble and because of the child's complexion. "My God!" he exclaims on first seeing him. "He's black!"

"He's just dark," Mila reassures him. "He'll lighten up."

"How?" replies Franta. "My God, it cost Michael Jackson millions to lighten up."

But soon he is so fond of the baby that he is prepared to be drummed out of the brotherhood of Sparta Praha supporters which, like many gangs of European soccer supporters, has the neo-Nazi taste for racial purity as well as for street-brawling. Meanwhile, at the other end of the Czech social scale, a professor called Oto (Jan Triska) who suffered dispossession and persecution under the Communist regime and has only recently been restored to his job and his home, has an attack of some kind and decides to put his life in order. "He wants to divorce Vera and talk to Martin," his 19-year-old daughter, Lenka (Kristyna Liska-Bokova), is told.

"Who's Vera?" asks the bewildered Lenka. "Who's Martin?"

Her mother, Hana (Ingrid Timkova), has to explain to her that Vera is her father's legal wife and Martin is their son, her older brother. The reasons for the fracture in the family and its having been kept so long a secret are not disclosed, but Martin, played by Petr Forman, son of the celebrated director Milos Forman, is duly summoned from his own exile in Australia, and there is a delightfully embarrassing dinner with him and his mother (Emilia Vasaryova) sitting at the same table with Oto and his new family and trying to "catch-up" while remaining more or less polite to each other.

Somewhat oddly but in a way that appears entirely natural, the fragile peace is shattered over the question of immigration. Hana is a refugee counselor and Vera, though she is a Russian translator and a woman of some culture and intelligence, allows her bitter resentment of the "gypsies" who are moving into her poorer neighborhood to provide the pretext for an attack on her hated rival, the younger and prettier Hana. To this Martin objects on the grounds that he is himself an immigrant back in Australia, where he has a wife and a son whom she has never met. The wedge thus driven between Martin and his mother, still resentful too over his leaving to go to the other side of the world where she refuses to follow, may be as impossible to heal as that between her and Oto. There is more unhappiness ahead for Mila and Franta as well, and we are finally left with the impression of a traditional society in a state of change too rapid for its people to cope with.

Part of the reason is doubtless that the artificial isolation and stagnation of the Communist period insulated the Czechs from the mobile, multicultural world that we in the West have had more time to get used to, but Messrs. Hrebejk and Jarchovsky have in spite of their crowded canvas done a good job of making their vignettes of the new Czech Republic -- in the midst of which Vaclav Havel puts in a cameo appearance as himself -- stand for something larger: the cultural meltdown of "old Europe." That, I take it, is why over the closing credits the camera lingers on the items of Western kitsch -- singing fish, crawling rubber hands and the like -- that are (or were) a shared joke between Vera and Martin. They seem to me to stand for the sense of irony which once united Czech culture and preserved it intact in spite of successive threats of foreign domination. But the film-makers seem less than optimistic that it will do so any longer.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.