Background: My exposure to the Czech Republic has been limited over the years. I'm old enough to remember, however vaguely, some of the political strife relating to the country years ago but lately, my only knowledge of the country comes from a beautiful acquaintance of mine in the form of porn star Jana Cova (go search for her in the adult section if you want pictures). Friends in the banking industry suggest that a lot of the women there are incredibly hot looking and the people are really nice but admit (upon closer scrutiny) that they are mainly familiar with the larger urban areas of the country that cater to businessmen and their observations may not be as accurate for the smaller towns that populate the region. Well, thanks to Film Movement, I got to see one of the most awarded movies from the country ever made in the form of Something Like Happiness (Stesti) this week, providing a glimpse into mundane life in the country.
Movie: Something Like Happiness is a story about three people and those around them that were originally childhood friends but have grown apart over time. Monika, Tonik and Dasha are in their late 20's and have barely survived a series of failed relationships. Monika sees her lover go off to the USA as he pursues his dream of financial success; leaving her behind. Her family pressures her to keep after him as they have been together for so long, worried that he's about to break her heart by chasing the bright lights of the American dream. Tonik has problems finding meaningful work, resisting his family's demands that he settle down with a stable job as he dreams of his already taken love (Monika) finding happiness with him all while Dasha's life goes in the crapper when her married boyfriend finds another flavor of the month to play with, leaving her kids in the cold apartment by themselves until they are rescued by her two friends.
While this is not the comprehensive version of what takes place, it gives you a feel for the soap opera nature of the events in the movie. The bitter realities of life creeping up on people and things not going the way we plan them is a common theme in cinematic history, this one winning scores of independent film festival awards as well as most of the Czech Lion Awards (their version of the Oscars) when it came out. Is it a comedy that will elicit belly laughs? Heck no, although there were numerous tender moments that poked fun at a great many aspects of life that would translate to most societies in other parts of the world too. Was it a horror flick? No, although I would again suggest that there were some parts that reached deep down and grabbed me as frightening in how they applied to people I knew awhile back (multiple kids, the father gone, and the mental breakdown that ensued). The best way I can describe the movie would be to rely on the drama category, saying that with all the subtle (and not so subtle) heartstrings it pulled, this is where the majority of the movie landed.
Director Bohdan Slama showed the world that life in many parts of the world has certain commonalities, that we are indeed very much alike, despite our political, geographic, and cultural differences. The dark, dirty industrial town was not whitewashed and the flawed characters were as real as one could expect, lending an air of authenticity to the movie that many will find refreshing. It was not escapist action fare with special effects, car chases, and lots of blood flying everywhere; just a small little movie about some friends that had seen brighter times and happier days making the most of their lots in life. I think that serious aficionados of foreign film will want to see this more than anyone else, so try it as a Rent It first unless you already subscribe to the Film Movement series and get it dirt cheap.
Picture: Something Like Happiness was shot on 35mm film with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and transferred to DVD with an anamorphic print to enhance the detail. It had a fair amount of grain and some minor issues but generally looked a lot better than most small budget titles shot in second world countries seem to do, the camera taking an almost home movie approach as director Slama went for a more intimate look into the lives he was capturing. This allowed for him to take the movie right into the homes where it probably works better than in an art house theatre unlike some movies that work better in a crowd. If you like sentimental movies, this should definitely be on your short list this year.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digitally enhanced Czech with English subtitles. There was no separation to speak of and the dynamic range was limited at best but this claustrophobic manner of using the audio worked well with the type of visuals and themes displayed in the movie. Your home speakers won't get a work out this time, in fact, the better they are, the worst this will sound but the tonal bleakness was part and parcel of the content to show certain aspects of the mundane portions of life that many of us try to escape from, usually to no avail.
Extras: There was a double sided DVD cover and some trailers, as well as biographies of the director and lead actors as usual but the best extra was the short film the company includes in all of their releases. This time, the title was Backseat Bingo, a semi-documentary about old folks and their sexual inclinations that has won a lot of awards and uses some interesting animation to show that life doesn't have to end when you turn 60 (at least in the bedroom). The only thing I wasn't keen on was how short it was but I could tell that the voice actors had a good time and the director clearly appreciated their assistance.
Final Thoughts: Something Like Happiness was the year 4, volume 11 title of the Film Movement series. It served to show that life has a lot of ups and downs of our own making as well as that which is thrust upon us by circumstance so we need to make the best out of what we have to work with and not wallow in despair. From Dasha's commitment to the mental institution to Tonik's struggles with his aunt's illness and loss of Monika to her lover, Something Like Happiness offered up a different kind of slice of life movie than I'm used to but still made with a lot of care and solid acting by those involved. I'm sure there were lots of important metaphors and messages I didn't catch the first time around but boiled down to its essence, the movie showed how similar life is for many people around the world, providing understanding if no answers to the questions it posed.