Year of the Devil

The legendary Czech appetites for distinctive music and enthusiastic imbibing converge in "Year of the Devil," fourth reality-bending feature from "Buttoners" helmer Petr Zelenka. Pic is the mockumentary-style saga of a real-life Czech popular singer's adventures with unlikely collaborators before, during and after a summer tour.

With:
With: Jarek Nohavica, Karel Plihal, Jan Prent, Karel Holas, Frantisek Cerny, Radek Poboril, Michal Pavlik, Radek Klucka, Jaz Coleman. (Czech, English and Dutch dialogue.)

The legendary Czech appetites for distinctive music and enthusiastic imbibing converge in “Year of the Devil,” fourth reality-bending feature from “Buttoners” helmer Petr Zelenka. Pic is the mockumentary-style saga of a real-life Czech popular singer’s adventures with unlikely collaborators before, during and after a summer tour. Though there are recognizable elements from genre standouts as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “This Is Spinal Tap” and recent “The Year of the Horse,” helmer’s trademark deadpan whimsy, coupled with the lack of emotional bonding between foreign auds and performers will severely impair the situational humor, if not the music. Thus, while pic was warmly received by the partisan Karlovy Vary opening night crowd, its international tour won’t extend beyond fests and music-themed sidebars.

When genial singer-songwriter Jarek Nohavica (who basically plays himself) forgets the words to his own songs when performing, his trusty guitarist Karel Plihal checks him into a rural alcohol treatment center. There he meets Jan Holman, a Dutch documaker and recovering alcoholic making a film on the subject. Plihal also hooks Nohavica up with the obscure folk band Cechomor, which has been playing weddings and funerals (moniker literally means “Czech Plague” but is also an abbreviation of descriptive phrase “Czech-Moravian”).

During a hotel gig providing live elevator music, group comes to the attention of intensely wild-eyed former Killing Joke front man Jaz Coleman, who happens to be in Prague working on a new project with the symphony.

This sets up what passes for pic’s plot, actually a series of encounters among these eccentric, scruffy yet appealing musicians. Things start out shakily as one member’s pants catch on fire during the debut show, but pretty soon they’re playing for adoring crowds — even as individual hang-ups come to the fore.

Zelenka has covered this territory before, most notably via the rise and fall of a fake band in his 1996 second feature “Mnaga-Happy End.” With direction credited to helmer “and his friends,” “Year of the Devil” feels looser and more improvised, a gamble aided immensely by the natural acting ability of its cast (Cerny’s the standout, managing to be both creepy and funny at the same time). Yet too many narrative set-ups trail off or just fall flat.

Tech credits are fine, with clean concert sound balancing an image that’s on the grainy side. There are brief cameos from young directors Sasa Gedeon (“Return of the Idiot”), Jan Hrebejk (“Divided We Fall”) and other local industryites.

Year of the Devil

Czech Republic

Production: A Falcon release (in Czech Republic) of a Negativ production, in association with Czech TV Brno, Cestimir Kopecky and Falcon. (International sales: Cinepol Intl., Prague.) Produced by Pavel Strnad. Directed, written by Petr Zelenka.

Crew: Camera (color), Miro Gabor; editor, David Charap; music, Jaromir Nohavica, Cechomor, Karel Holas; art director, Milan Bycek; costume designer, Jaroslava Pecharova; sound (Dolby Digital Surround EX), Michal Holubec. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (opening night), July 4, 2002. Running time: 88 MIN.

With: With: Jarek Nohavica, Karel Plihal, Jan Prent, Karel Holas, Frantisek Cerny, Radek Poboril, Michal Pavlik, Radek Klucka, Jaz Coleman. (Czech, English and Dutch dialogue.)

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