After tackling Prague in the 1950s with the wry “Pelisky” and during World War II with the daring Oscar-nommed comedy-drama “Divided We Fall,” prominent Czech helmer Jan Hrebejk confronts the problematic 1980s with “Pupendo.” Perhaps his most mature work — and a huge popular success since its late March domestic theatrical bow — pic nevertheless reps a marketing challenge for auds not steeped in the complex, gray issues of guilt and complicity, loyalty and honesty that Czechs have grappled with since the 1968 Soviet invasion and subsequent repressive socialist government that collapsed with 1989’s Velvet Revolution. Nevertheless, propelled by worldwide fest interest, this winner of the best film award at the Plzen fest should enjoy modest but dignified arthouse biz and strong ancillary.
By the early part of the 1980s, Czechs who came of age around 1968’s Prague Spring were settling into lives of compromise and dashed dreams. An unspecified political gaffe by talented sculptor Bedrich Mara (Bolek Polivka) resulted in his marginalization from Prague’s art world. Whatever defiance he once may have had, however, is now limited to Frank Zappa and John Lennon posters on the walls.
Stripped of his prestigious academy post and not even listed on the official Artists Assn. roster, Bedrich shares a cramped riverside flat with cynical but loving wife Alena (Eva Holubova) and two children, one of whom is deaf. Each day he rows across the Vltava River to his studio on Liben Island, where he cranks out dozens of ceramic piggy banks or just fishes.
Bedrich’s classmate Magda (Vilma Cibulkova) has it much better, having married blustery but ambitious Mila Brecka (Jaroslav Dusek), now a respected school principal. Mila became a card-carrying Communist in order to advance and support his wife and two kids comfortably. He doesn’t really subscribe to the Party line but justifies his membership (as many did at the time) by vowing to work for change from within.
Bedrich’s chance meeting with down-on-his-luck art historian Alois Fabera (Jiri Pecha)prompts the academic to begin an article on Bedrich, and prompts the artist to consider accepting a surprise commission to sculpt a Party functionary. Though conditions would seem to be softening somewhat, the deadly seriousness of Socialist life is brought home when a chunk of Alois’ smuggled essay is read aloud on Voice of America and Bedrich’s family suffers a new round of ostracism.
As with his previous two films, Hrebejk and scripter Petr Jarchovsky (who share a “film by” credit) mix dark humor and grim drama in equal measure. Pic’s title comes from the childish prank of slapping a heavy coin on the bare stomach of a victim who has been promised something pleasurable, a startling, if tenuous, metaphor for Socialism’s illusion of stability and prosperity that morphed into the sting of repression.
So too, the rigidity of life at the time is spoofed at every turn, though much of the humor is so insular as to be puzzling to an outsider.
Pitched firmly between the dramatic depths of his perf as the rural priest in Vladimir Michalik’s “Forgotten Light” and the manic country bumpkin of Vera Chytilova’s “The Inheritance,” Polivka’s characterization is neither fish nor fowl, befitting the odd tenor of the times but making his character difficult to grasp.
As he did in “Divided We Fall,” Dusek holds the screen with a turn that cannily subverts self-importance with flashes of pathos; Polivka and Dusek’s big scene together as they drunkenly compose a written “message to the future” denouncing Socialism, to be embedded in the hideous mural Bedrich is slapping on to a school wall, is among the film’s emotional high points.
Holubova shines in a scene in which she uses the government’s manipulative tactics against an inquisitive insurance agent; and as the sole character on both the giving and receiving end of the title prank, Cibulkova sells the concept. Pavel Liska gives a typically zonked-out perf as the returning b.f. of one of the teenagers.
Tech credits are crisp across the board, with shrewdly-chosen period tunes enhancing the mood. To enhance experience for deaf auds, a modest number of Czech-subtitled prints are making the rounds domestically.