Opera is the subject, medium and language of Jiri Menzel’s latest comedy, revolving around a production of “Don Giovanni” by a Czech small-town troupe. Bursting with energy from the get-go, pirouetting through a blizzard of inventive gags spun at a terrific pace, “The Don Juans” unsurprisingly flags somewhat in extending its setup, with little infusion of new material, until the final curtain. The Mozart remains a source of real vitality, but what starts as whirlwind wit eventually grows repetitive. Still, the first 45 minutes generate a buoyant high that could carry the entire film for many auds.
The opera director Vitek (Jan Hartl) functions obviously as a likably sardonic, mockingly modest version of Menzel himself, as partly confirmed by his direct addresses to the camera; he attributes his success to the fact that he never took opera very seriously and doesn’t want to do anything original. A quick montage of would-be “modernist” Don Giovannis — from a long-haired, leather-clad motorcyclist baring his chest as he pours out his soul to a baritone on a toilet, pulling the chain to signal the end of his aria — illustrates his point. Vitek claims not to like opera, but loves sopranos, as attested to by the large number of high-note hitters bedded in rapid succession, vocalizing their rapture through Vitek’s open bedroom window.
In counterpoint to Vitek is Marketka (Libuse Safrankova), another musical director, this one the leader of a children’s choir and the whimsical head of four generations of single mothers, all seduced and abandoned by singing Don Juans. Fearlessly impulsive, Marketka gets herself arrested twice. The first time, she is nabbed for holding rehearsals in a fantastic abandoned 17th-century theater, complete with multiple trapdoors and movable flats. During her second run-in with the law, Marketka observes masked bank robbers stuffing money in the trunk of a stolen car (Vitek’s, actually), jumps into the driver’s seat and takes off — even though she can’t drive, which she proves immediately by crashing through the front of a butcher shop.
Vitek’s and Marketka’s storylines crisscross on several occasions, particularly in scenes involving Jakub (Martin Huba), an over-the-hill skirt chaser and once-famous bass whom Vitek woos out of retirement to play the Commendatore. Jakub could conceivably rep another surrogate for Menzel, returning after a long absence from filmmaking.
A number of filmmakers have recently produced some fairly amazing pics during their supposed twilight years. Like the Tavianis brothers with “Caesar Must Die,” Menzel brings an extensive theater background to his high-concept film comeback, though nothing could be farther from the Tavianis’ prison-set “Julius Caesar” than this frothy operatic romp. “The Don Juans” feels closer in spirit to Robert Altman’s swan song, “A Prairie Home Companion,” with its obvious surrogate for its aging director; its last hurrahs for a tradition-filled musical venue; and its heartless money man prowling in the wings. Menzel implies here that the angel of death, though not specifically incarnate, likewise lies in wait.