Don’t tell 74-year-old Moravian-born Czech director Vojtech Jasny you can’t go home again. In the evocatively titled, loosely autobiographical “Which Side Eden,” he imagines a benevolent, whimsical world in which a returning emigre is embraced by his village and is an agent for love via at least one Czech-American affair of the heart. This defiantly sentimental item could be a tough sell in a cynical marketplace, but the Montreal audience gave the pic a resounding ovation, so distribs and buyers will want to take a good hard look.
New York-based film professor Jan Poutnik (Vladimir Pucholt) introduces his friend Adam (Adam Davidson) to a young widowed schoolteacher who has traveled from Poutnik’s home town of Bystre to present Jan with his father’s pocket watch.
As the professor struggles with memories of his wartime childhood and the direction of his life, Adam and the young widow, Pampeliska (Ingrid Timkova), grow close. This sets the stage for two very different sojourns to Bystre, and the busy subplots among the extended family of eccentric villagers.
The pic comes alive on the verdant Bohemian-Moravian Uplands location (the same village where Jasny shot the Czech New Wave touchstone “All My Good Countrymen” just over 30 years ago). The helmer has stocked the town with a mix of Czech and Slovakian faces, and each gets some time in the camera’s sun.
Unfortunately, the heavily idealized New York work has far less veracity, as sequences were apparently shot on the fly and often look it, particularly during the contrived climax involving Pampeliska’s young son Joska (Jakub Laurych) getting lost.
Returning to the screen after a three-decade break from acting, Pucholt’s serene performance as Poutnik (“wanderer” in Czech) confirms the promise shown in his early work with Milos Forman. Slovakian film and theater actress Timkova brings an elegant vulnerability to Pampeliska (“dandelion”), while Davidson’s earnest but awkward Adam buckles down to win the teacher’s love.
Tech credits are classy, with Juraj Sajmovic’s probing and easily distracted camera complemented by Milan Kymlicka’s histrionic score. Literal translation of the Czech title is “Return of Paradise Lost,” and the English moniker retains an essential ambivalence about where, precisely, within each heart that utopia might lie.