Adding to an oeuvre already noteworthy for its formidable scope, Czech documaker Helena Trestikova unveils perhaps her most ambitious longform documentary to date, “Private Universe.” The latest of what she’s referred to as her “time-collecting films,” this intimate and perceptive document of the 37-year-and-counting marriage of a working-class Prague couple is a natural for the festival circuit, and could find success with international auds curious to see how families coped through turbulent times.
Petr Kettner and Jana Pfefferova marry in 1974, and shortly afterward, their son Honza is born. The family is finally able to leave its cramped Prague flat for a rundown house in the countryside. Now an electrician, Petr works to fix it up, while Jana raises their expanding brood (two more kids follow Honza).
By 2008, they and their homeland have gone through remarkable changes: The Soviet-imposed socialism during which they wed has given way to the Velvet Revolution, the split into the Czech and Slovak republics and the conversion to Western ways. Yet both family and country survive, due in no small part to the pragmatic optimism inherent in the Czech character. As Jana tells the filmmaker near the end, “I guess what I’ve done, I was supposed to do.”
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What began as a short film blossoms into a lifelong enquiry into child rearing, as Honza grows into a dope-smoking, John Lennon-loving teenager. Later, as an adult, he relocates to Spain and works as a restaurant dishwasher. Though concerned, his parents remain unflagging in their love and support.
Over and above Trestikova’s remarkable staying power as a filmmaker, her inspired linkage of the family unit with political change allows the world to understand how togetherness became an insular strategy against the bleaker aspects of the totalitarian regime.
Tech package is crisp, seamlessly weaving together different film and tape formats into a cohesive whole. The helmer’s strategy to film Petr Kettner’s narration live in the studio, as he watches the footage on a monitor, yields tangible emotional benefits, with levity provided by career-spanning clips of cherished and politically adept Czech crooner Karel Gott.