One of the most original and inventive pics out of Central Europe in some time, “Return of the Idiot” takes a much-admired Czech staple — semi-realistic observation of characters in a small-town setting — and turns it brilliantly on its head. Already a critical and B.O. success back home, where it opened in February, this sophomore outing by young Czech helmer Sasa Gedeon demands overseas exposure beyond the fest circuit, preferably in the hands of a devoted distrib; the picture’s small, incremental pleasures don’t play to the gallery.
Gedeon’s debut feature, “Indian Summer,” evoked critical comparisons with the Czech New Wave of the ’60s; but “Idiot,” loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s novel about a man who unsettles everyone around him, proves that the comparison was more a flag of convenience. Gedeon took his time between movies, but the four-year wait for this second one pays off in every frame: Though he occasionally stumbles, and the pic is perhaps 10 minutes too long, there’s a precision in its crafting, on every level, that’s rare among young directors coming off a first hit.
The film doesn’t trade on the town setting for the quiet eccentricities of its characters, and much of the time has only a few people onscreen. It is also a movie that is best enjoyed with no prior knowledge of the content and characters, as part of its magic comes from discovering relationships according to Gedeon’s pacing and storytelling. In many respects, it is a story told backward, starting out like a blank sheet and slowly developing shape, color and texture as it progresses.
Suffice to say that it opens with a young man (Pavel Liska), who is clearly a tad simple, eyeing a young redhead (Anna Geislerova) running for the same train he is boarding, getting the better part of her tub of yogurt in his face and then ending up in the same sleeper compartment. Set to a simple, nursery-rhyme-like theme, and elliptically cut, these opening scenes establish the tone of the movie — discreetly humorous (almost in a silent-comedy way), not quite real and with the camera maintaining a cool distance toward the characters.
On the day before New Year’s Eve, the man disembarks in a snowy town that is just waking up. In a cafe, he observes the breakup of a young brunette (Tatiana Vilhelmova) and her lover (Jiri Langmajer), whom he’s previously eyed through their bedroom window. Later, at a town dance, he spots the redhead, but she fails to intervene when he’s thrown out for allegedly harassing two girls. As he wanders the night streets, apparently homeless, the redhead rings him at a phone booth below her window and invites him up to sleep over.
Only then does Gedeon start to give the audience info about his characters and how they relate to one another; but before long, the story moves on, throwing them together in various combinations and exposing their emotional travails and secrets with the precision of a surgeon. The young man, ever present for reasons only partly explained, becomes a kind of trusted confidant to them all, especially as he accidentally holds some information that could potentially upset the whole apple cart.
The film overplays its hand in a couple of brief fantasy/dream sequences that sit uncomfortably with the pic’s restraint, and the final reel especially could do with some trimming. But when it hits its stride — notably in a New Year’s Eve lunch that’s masterful in its balance of social tensions and increasing absurdity — Gedeon shows he’s in debt to no one, or any New Wave, for his style.
Cast is impeccable down the line, with Vilhelmova, especially, and Geislerova excellent as the two very different young women. In a largely mute role, Liska is touchingly sympathetic, hinting at rather than underlining the central character’s simpleness. Tech credits are finely tuned, with d.p. Stepan Kucera’s careful compositions an equal ingredient of the picture.