'Up and Down': A World of Czechs and Balances
Friday, April 29, 2005
For an engrossing, funny, sad, cautiously hopeful portrait of post-Soviet life in Eastern Europe, look no further than "Up and Down," Czech director Jan Hrebejk's multiethnic, cross-generational, transcultural story of intersecting lives and fates. Following in the footsteps of such recent films as "Dirty Pretty Things" and "In This World," "Up and Down" tries to wrap its arms around the dizzying world of political upheaval, immigration and the ever-contracting global village. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may argue in his new book that the world is flat, but in Hrebejk's view it's jumbled into one big tangle that's as often filled with felicitous intersections as Gordian knots.
Part comedy, part melodrama, "Up and Down" is also a thriller, the improbable quarry of which is an orphaned baby. As the movie opens, a group of Roma migrants is being smuggled into the Czech Republic by two black marketeers. When they are forced to vacate the back of the truck they've been traveling in, they leave behind a tiny infant, a baby boy who slides precariously to the lip of the bouncing trailer in a flimsy cardboard box. Once the drivers get to Prague, they immediately set about to cash in on the lucrative market for healthy babies, and they find a willing buyer in the person of Hana (Ingrid Timkova), a woman whose desperate desire for a child has clearly tipped over into neurosis. When she brings the baby home to her husband, a violent former soccer goon named Franta (Jiri Machacek), he's initially appalled by the child's dark complexion, but he gradually overcomes his nativist impulses and accepts the boy as a future goalie.
Meanwhile, the Horecky family is going through its own changes, as the patriarch Otakar (Jan Triska), a distinguished college professor, collapses in front of his blackboard (upon which is prophetically written "diaspora"). His illness prompts a reunion between his two families, the gorgeous social worker he's been living with for years and their lovely teenage daughter, and his estranged wife and his grown son, the latter of whom has moved to Australia. Eventually, all the characters in "Up and Down" intersect unexpectedly, but each in some way is coping with a troubled past, a fragile future and, often, a bad case of self-deception. As Hrebejk ratchets up the tension, even the most liberal characters reveal hidden prejudices too firmly rooted to be excised with mere good intentions. Whether a jilted wife, an abandoned son or an idealistic young girl, the passionate, contradictory protagonists of "Up and Down" seem to embody the Czech Republic itself, with its simultaneous sense of dislocation and hope.
There are moments of brute ugliness in "Up and Down," especially when Hrebejk takes viewers into Franta's world of virulently racist soccer fans. But for every example of beastly chauvinism there's a parallel instance of profound beauty. Set in an almost unrecognizable Prague, devoid of the romantic vistas that have come to be associated with that city, Hrebejk's story layers culture upon culture until concepts like race and ethnicity come to have almost no meaning. (Gypsies, as the Roma people are called, might be the most stigmatized group at large in Europe, but by the end of "Up and Down" we've even seen Roma themselves disparage Arab and Asian immigrants.)
Eventually, the simmering personal and political resentments come to a head in "Up and Down," with a few genuinely surprising outcomes. No matter how breathtaking some of the revelations are, the director always maintains superb tonal balance between drama and wry humor. As Hrebejk reveals the lot of each character, we see that some revert to a bitter, paralyzed past, some walk eagerly into the future and some simply stay put. In fact, the only character whose destiny is tinged with mystery is the baby who started it all.
As a symbol of the country's contested future, his ambiguous fate is probably altogether appropriate.