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Odd Couple: Jirí Machácek and Natasa Burger end up with a black-market baby in 'Up and Down.'

Prague Rock

The Czech Republic grapples with the realities of the free market in 'Up and Down'

By Richard von Busack

HAVING vanquished communism, capitalism turns its strength on a new target: democracy. The tag-team movie Up and Down is a flashing and funny portrait of the current free-market Czech plight.

Previously, director Jan Hrebejk did the similarly pessimistic Divided We Fall. When that film came out, I wrote it could be summed up by Saul Bellow's line that "between men there are only two choices: brotherhood or crime." This not very comforting view of human choice informs Up and Down, too.

The lineup of desperate characters includes a stolen baby, a likable but bitter old mom, an essentially gentle numbskull (Jirí Machácek) trying to resist the call of neofascism and a senescent professor (Jan Triska) representing the ailing humanist tradition. And, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo: Václav Havel, there to demonstrate how the Prague Spring has changed into the Prague Late Fall.

The trouble begins when a pair of smugglers bring a truckload of illegal Balkan immigrants into the Czech Republic. A squabble breaks out when the immigrants leave the truck, and the two Czech coyotes end up with a Rom infant in a basket.

Knowing well that babies have a market value, they take the foundling to their fence, a grouchy grandma in a wheelchair. She in turn sells the babe to a woman on the verge of collapse in longing for a child. Drab Mila (Natasa Burger) has a husband: the hulking, shaven-headed Franta (Machácek), whose cleft palate was repaired with the surgical equivalent of duct tape by some Eastern Bloc doctor. He's a part-time security guard and full-time supporter of Prague's Sparta soccer team. Franta loved the game so much they had to arrest him for it; he was jailed after joining in on some act of hooliganism.

Meanwhile, during a lecture in favor of human immigration—spiced with a reference to Euripides' The Children of Heracles—Otto (Triska), an aged professor, collapses with a brain ailment. When he comes to, he asks to see two people from his past. One is his discarded wife, Vera (Emilia Vásáryová), a Russian translator. The other is his son, Martin (Petr Forman), who long ago emigrated to Australia.

These two are given a chilly welcome by the prof's new live-in mistress, Hana (Ingrid Timková). Though she lacks the human touch, Hana works at a refugee center coping with the illegal immigrants fleeing the Balkans. Hrebejk and his co-screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky shuttle back and forth between the story of these high-level academics and charity workers and the clerks, criminals and lager louts who live in the unpicturesque parts of Prague. While celebrating that beloved city, they mourn the land's tragic infection by racism and xenophobia. The filmmakers are less alarmed by the human traffic pouring west than they are by the rise of a new barbarism at home.

Tragic as it can be at times, Up and Down is primarily comic. When his dark-skinned adopted baby is discovered, Franta is drummed out of the racist gang of football supporters by "The Colonel" (Jaroslav Dusek). Franta is forced to witness his phone number being deleted from the Colonel's cell phone—not quite "blood in, blood out."

Always, Hrebejk fools us. At first sight, Franta looks like bad news. Yet he and Mila exhibit the abrasive yet close rapport of a couple in one of George Booth's cartoons for The New Yorker. (Instead of a grimacing dog, Franta and Mila own a grimacing cat.)

By contrast, Vera is initially easy to like. The middle-aged gal has a taste for kitschy toys that she buys at the Vietnamese-run flea market. And she enjoys a merry, untroubled rapport with her nouveau-Aussie son. At the family reunion scene, we're even more in favor of this middle-aged gal, who curtly demands beer instead of the offered wine—all the better to show up her husband's conceited blonde girlfriend.

But at the dinner, Vera turns out to have a really ugly side. Her Gypsy hatred comes out after the third drink. Vera's big failure in life was betting her future on making money translating for the Russians. When they left, this bad career investment doomed her to the slums.

Up and Down is an unwieldy film, and one's appreciation for it goes up and down, too. Tag-team movies often creak from all the freight they're carrying, and the relationship between Otto and Vera is particularly underwritten. Still, as in Divided We Fall, Hrebejk takes the traditional milky flavor out of a cinematic message of tolerance. As a man from a formerly occupied country, the director knows the paradox: Everyone is irked by foreigners. Yet no one really reckons we're all foreigners somewhere.

Up and Down (R; 108 min.), directed by Jan Hrebejk, written by Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovsky, photographed by Jan Malír and starring Jirí Machácek and Natasa Burger, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the March 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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