Sure, freedom's great, but the messy details!

Los Angeles TimesApril 8, 2005 

The view from Prague: Emilia Vasaryova and Petr Forman star in this quirky look at life after the Velvet Revolution.

All over the world, people know that the ebb and tide of global capitalism, with its flocks of migratory jobs, can turn population influx to outflow back to influx in short order, but the phenomenon is newer to some parts of the globe than to others. Czech director Jan Hrebejk ("Divided We Fall"), for whom the effects of historical convulsions on ordinary people have been a fruitful subject, takes a micro view of this macro phenomenon in his delightfully wry comedy "Up and Down."

Given its themes, "Up and Down" might easily have lurched into dark and burpy Ken Loach territory, but it's buoyed by an unreserved humanism and a cheerful sense of the absurd. In Hrebejk's cool, unsentimental view, the business of societal transformation, while great and all, turns out to be a bit of a grind for the average Joe. On top of everything else, he's expected to elbow his way through grand epochal moments and still get to work on time.

Set in contemporary Prague, the movie chronicles the comings and goings of a group of ordinary citizens (and would-be citizens) of the Czech Republic, among them several bewildered new immigrants, an unsympathetic old one, her deracinated expat son and a bunch of people who never went anywhere. Still wiggling their toes upon being sprung from the full-body cast of centralized Soviet bureaucracy, the latter feel intense pressure to keep up with the merciless pace of global capitalism. How do those Vietnamese immigrants do it?

The movie opens on a pair of petty criminals, Goran and Milan (Zdenek Suchy and Jan Budar), shuttling a cargo of illegal Indian immigrants in the back of a truck while trading stories about their adventures in exotic tourism. Milan recently traveled with his girlfriend to Thailand, where he inadvertently ate what he's pretty sure was chicken-fried bat.

After depositing the workers near the German border, Goran and Milan drive away, then find someone has accidentally left a baby behind. Not knowing what else to do, they drop the child off at the pawnshop where they fence all the stuff they steal.

Milan likes to think of himself as a great humanitarian rather than a petty thief, and this self-view is confirmed when the baby is bought by Miluska (Natasa Burger), a Czech woman who can't conceive and can't adopt. Her husband, Frantisek (Jiri Machacek), has a police record incurred during some dimwitted acts of soccer hooliganism.

While the borderline-retarded Frantisek, whose sense of self is constructed entirely around his team, suffers an existential identity crisis ("There is no God! That's why I'm a fan!"), in other quarters an emigre returns home after two decades in Australia, where he's become the kind of Eastern European who owns a surf shop and has a son called "Duke." Martin (Petr Forman) has come back to see his father, Otakar (Jan Triska), who is about to undergo brain surgery, and whom he hasn't spoken to since Otakar abandoned Martin's mother, Vera (Emilia Vasaryova), for Martin's girlfriend Hana (Ingrid Timkova) 20 years earlier.

Nobody in "Up and Down" is innocent, noble or particularly proud. But Hrebejk and his screenwriter, Petr Jarchovsky, understand their characters too well to judge them. Not shaped by history so much as warped by it, the characters in "Up and Down" are at least exquisitely attuned to the ironies of modern life and the bittersweetness of discovering the new system may be better than the old one, but it's no picnic.

As Milan muses when they drop off their load of cheap migrant labor in the middle of the night: "A person takes risks like this so he can go to Thailand and eat fried bat."

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