Closely Watched DVDs

A guide to Czech cinema on DVD

My Sweet Little Village

Filed under: Menzel, Jiří, Svěrák, Zdeněk, DVD Reviews, Hrušínský, Rudolf, Čepek, Petr, Directors, Actors — Michael at 11:13 am on Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Vesničko má středisková

1985, colour, 100 mins

  • Director: Jiří Menzel
  • Producer: Jan Šuster
  • Screenplay: Zdeněk Svěrák
  • Photography: Jaromír Šofr
  • Editor: Jiří Brožek
  • Design: Zbynek Hloch
  • Music: Jiří Šust

  • Cast: János Bán (Otík); Marian Labuda (Pávek); Rudolf Hrušínský (Dr. Skružný); Petr Čepek (Turek); Libuše Šafránková (Jana); Jan Hartl (Kašpar); Miloslav Štibich (Kalina); Oldřich Vlach (Kunc); Stanislav Aubrecht (Járda); Zdeněk Svěrák (Evžen Ryba, the painter); Marie Šebestová (Věra Kousalová, the teacher); Július Satinský (Pilot Štefan); Josef Somr (Kovodřeva, the editor); František Vláčil (Adolf Ticháček); Milena Dvorská (Pávková); Milada Ježková (Hrabětová); Ladislav Županič (Rumlena); Jitka Asterová (Rumlenová); Jiří Lír (Rambousek, the landlord); Blanka Lormanová (Půlpánová); Rudolf Hrušínský Jr. (Drápalík); Evžen Jegorov (Brož, the sexton); Jiří Schmitzer (okrskář Tlamicha); Rudolf Hrušínský IV (Kalina ml.)Věra Vlková (nanny Pávková); Anna Vaňková (Kalinová); Petr Brukner (co-worker Duda); Míla Myslíková (Fialková); Jan Hraběta (combine harvester operator Žežulka); Jana “Paprika” Hanáková (saleswoman Echtnerová); Milan Šteindler (závozník Šesták); Vladimír Hrabánek (caretaker Pavlíček); Zuzana Burianová (Bohunka); Klára Pollertová (Majka Pávková); Vida Skalská (cook); Jan Kašpar (Ferda); Vlasta Jelínková (Ticháčková); D.Hajná (Hrušková); A.Fišerová.

  • Crew: Eva Horázná (assistant editor); Antonín Vaněk (boom operator); Jiří Kučera (stills photographer); Emil Sirotek, Gabriela Kerekešová (assistant producers); Pavel Nový, Jan Peterka (production supervisors); Antonín Mařík (camera assistant); Karel Hejsek (assistant cameraman); Hana Suchá (script supervisor); Petr Slabý, Jan Hraběta, Věra Pištěková (assistant directors); Josef Hrabušický (assistant architect); Bedřich Černák, Rudolf Beneš, Jaroslav Lehman, Stanislav Rovný (sets); Běla Suchá (costume design); Ludmila Ondráčková, Iva Bártová, Dana Chaloupková, Jana Soudná (costumes), Tomáš Kuchta, Šárka Šimůnková, Simona Marešová (make-up); Filmový symfonický orchestr (music performed by); Dr. Štěpán Koníček (conductor); František Černý, ing. Karel Jaroš (sound recording); Miloslav Vydra (5. dramaturgicko-výrobní skupina vedoucí skupiny); Filmové studio Barrandov (production company)

The Film

A gigantic box-office hit on its original release (5 million tickets sold in a country whose population wasn’t much more than double that), Jiří Menzel’s gently subversive comedy My Sweet Little Village is clearly regarded with immense and continuing affection in the Czech Republic, if online popularity polls are anything to go by.

As with many domestic comedy successes, though, it’s not immediately obvious to outsiders just why this particular film should have struck such a chord. Although it achieved some international exposure on the back of its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (it was the first Czech film to reach the last five in nearly twenty years), its Western critical reception was generally more muted, most writers noting that the film’s blend of gentle humour and broad slapstick might be less appealing outside its native country.

Certainly, on the surface, the film could hardly be more straightforward. Most of it is set in the village of the title (one of the characters is an amateur aviator, giving Menzel a perfect excuse for some lyrical aerial shots), and its economy seems to revolve around a large collective farm. All the characters are instantly recognisable: the bull-headed Turek (Petr Čepek), suspects that his wife Jana (Libuše Šafránková) is having an affair but unable, despite many angry accusations, to spot that the culprit is Václav Kašpar (Jan Hartl); mullet-haired teenager Járda (Stanislav Aubrecht), hopelessly in lust with his sister’s teacher Věra (Marie Šebestová), who prefers the older-man charms of itinerant painter Evžen Ryba (Zdeněk Svěrák); Doctor Skružný (Rudolf Hrušínský), whose medical skill is offset by his appalling driving; above all the self-consciously Laurel-and-Hardy duo of Járda’s father Karel Pávek (Marian Labuda), plump partner of the gangling near-imbecile Otík Rakosnik (János Bán).

There’s a plot of sorts - the Machiavellian machinations of a man much higher up the bureaucratic ladder to take over Otík’s house as a summer retreat, shipping him off to a crummy Prague flat and dead-end office job as a decidedly slanted exchange - and the development of this (and the associated bribery, corruption and, ultimately, victory on the part of the innocents at the bottom) is what gives the film its reputation for subversion. On the face of it, it’s hard to see how a Communist government could disapprove of a film whose ultimate message that life is only truly sweet if people look out for each other - were it not for the fact that it’s precisely those government officials who are depicted as the major obstructions to the achievement of this paradise on earth.

Admittedly, this is hardly biting satire, and doesn’t even have the edge of Menzel’s 1960s work, but under the circumstances this is understandable. Czech cultural policy in the 1970s and 1980s did not, to put it mildly, encourage anything that could be interpreted as a full-on attack on the status quo, and Menzel had already spent six years out of work in the 1970s as “punishment” for overstepping the line. As a result, My Sweet Little Village is a classic example of what Miloš Forman called “writing between the lines”, if only to allow Menzel to continue his career.

However, the film’s real strengths require no such historical context. While its numerous wry observations are never quite as quirky as that found in the films Menzel adapted from the work of the novelist Bohumil Hrabal (Closely Watched Trains/Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966; Larks on a String/Skřivánci na niti, 1969; Cutting It Short/Postřižiny, 1980; Snowdrop Festival/Slavnosti sněženek, 1983), there are plenty of delicious moments.

Chief amongst these are those that betray Menzel and writer Zdeněk Svěrák’s entirely genuine love of the countryside and its traditions, something they’d already demonstrated with their earlier collaboration Seclusion Near a Forest/Na samotě u lesa (1976). Dr Skružný’s appalling driving is exacerbated by his tendency to go into Stendhal Syndrome-like raptures when confronted with the beauty of the surrounding environment, while the painter Evžen Ryba (Svěrák himself) refuses to paint anything that doesn’t directly evoke his romanticised view of Czech country life. All this is counterpointed throughout by János Bán’s gentle-giant performance as Otík - a Hungarian actor (recently seen in Lajos Koltai’s Holocaust drama Fateless, 2006), Bán reputedly understood very little Czech, which adds extra weight to his general air of amiable befuddlement.

Typically for a popular Czech comedy, all of this is interspersed with rather earthier humour involving misplaced food (and beer), men distracted by women’s bottoms, cartoonish car accidents, and so on. Much of this could have been transplanted from the slapstick era, and Menzel is himself a fan of silent comedy, having paid direct tribute to it in his 1978 film Those Wonderful Movie Cranks/Báječní muži s klikou, and peppering his other films with obscure references (one of the characters in Cutting It Short keeps comparing his own disasters with Lupino Lane comedies) - but a little of this can generally go a pretty long way.

But, on the whole, it lives up to the promise of its title: it’s a sweet little village and a sweet little film. Expect no more, and you’ll get no less.


The DVD

Distribution: Centrum českého videa (Czech Republic), PAL, no region code

Picture: For all the film’s stature, this DVD only just passes muster. The source print has seen better days, which quite a few white dust spots on the image (though the timing of a nasty tramline suggests it was present on the original shot in question), and the encoding is somewhat basic, with particularly glaring digital artefacting present at the fog-shrouded start, and regular glitches thereafter, momentary picture freezes being typical - I double-checked on my laptop to make sure it wasn’t my player at fault.

None of which renders the film unwatchable by any means, and most of it is perfectly adequate, but it does seem odd that a Czech label (and one of the majors at that) should do such a sloppy job with such an iconic Czech title. The framing is 4:3, and there’s no indication from the picture compositions that it should be anything else (the Soviet Union and its satellite states carried on using 4:3 long after it went out of fashion in the US).

Sound: Bafflingly, three soundtracks (all Czech) are on offer - Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1, and DTS 5.0. I say “bafflingly” because there’s no particular sign that much has been done to differentiate them - I listened to the DTS track, and it might as well have been mono for 99% of the time: aside from a few brief moments such as the arrival of a plane, my centre speaker seemed to be doing all the work. That said, since the film would have been mono to begin with, this isn’t a problem at all. While I’d guess that the Dolby 2.0 track is closer to the original, I found that the DTS track offered markedly better quality, so that’s what I’d recommend. There were no other issues worth noting - it’s hardly going to give your system a workout, but you wouldn’t expect that from a twenty-year-old Czech film in the first place.

Subtitles: The English subtitles are riddled with typos, and on two occasions the language switches momentarily to Czech (though only for one line apiece, and it’s obvious from the context what’s being said). The translation was also clearly not written by a native English speaker, though it’s more charming than jarring, and chimes surprisingly well with the feel of the film itself. The disc also offers Czech hard-of-hearing subtitles.

Extras: The strongest extras are the least useful for non-Czech speakers, consisting as they do of unsubtitled interviews with director Jiří Menzel, co-star Marian Labuda and writer/supporting actor Zdeněk Svěrák. The original theatrical trailer is also unsubtitled, and in exceptionally poor condition (the menu even apologises for this!), and the filmographies for the director and leading actors are naturally in Czech only. Slightly handier is a stills gallery, which is accompanied by Jiří Šust’s evocative music from the film, though purists might be annoyed at the way the images have been presented as though they’re projected onto a screen in the village cinema, with the back of Otík’s head protruding well into the frame.


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