Winner of the critic’s prize at this year’s Karlovy Vary fest, “Cosy Dens” was also a surprise hit in Vancouver, where it neared the top of the popular vote. That makes sense, because this bittersweet tale is one of the outstanding Czech films of recent times, deserving the kind of international attention Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman received three decades ago. Brilliant helmer Jan Hrebejk’s third pic may not travel past big cities commercially, but it should garner a significant critical mass.
Set in the Christmas season leading up to the ill-fated Prague Spring of 1968 , this perfectly handled coming-of-age comedy sticks to two families in a small suburban apartment building. Teenage Michal Sebek (Michael Beran) has a major crush on his cool and pretty neighbor, Jindriska Kraus (Kristyna Novakova), but they are divided by politics and more. His clan is ostensibly run by a dimwitted army officer (hilarious Miroslav Donutil) while her dad (Jiri Kodet) is an even more autocratic opponent of the communists, protected only by his status as a genuine war hero.
This doesn’t make him brave enough to stop his rebellious daughter from calling her mother’s Czech dumplings gnocchi, causing nationalistic apoplexy in the Kraus household. Mr. Sebek, meanwhile, is convinced that the dazzling new plasticware from East Germany will finally put those decadent Americans in their place, although his son is far more concerned about that handsome hipster (Ondrej Brousek) Jindriska starts going out with.
The shaggy-haired lad plays piano, wears Beatles boots and has his own movie projector, the better to play films from Hollywood and prewar France for the neighborhood. (One even leads to Michal being taunted for his supposed resemblance to Jean Marais.)
Pic is superbly cast with thesps who move effortlessly from poignant family insights to outright physical comedy, including hair that’s lazily set on fire and an imported Soviet “toy” that purposely tortures children.
Another standout is veteran Boleslav Polivka, as the officer’s brainier but oh-so-competitive brother, and Czechophiles will recognize helming great Jiri Krejcik as a sympathetic and overworked family doctor.
Jan Malir’s lensing and Milan Bycek’s sets are alive with affectionately wrought period detail (itself aided by sweetly corny pop music from the era), even if the verisimilitude is undermined by subtitles rendered in laughably modern Americanese. Sixties preteens keep saying “Awesome!” and an adult even cries, “Don’t believe the hype.” This makes the British spelling of the title even odder. Original name is closer to “Little Rooms,” and it’s worth noting that Petr Jarchovsky’s fine script smooths out and meaningfully connects the wholly episodic elements of Petr Sabach’s “Shit Burns,” the novel upon which this unforgettable pic is based.