Keep this in mind when you see the Czech movie Up and Down: It's a foreign film; it's not Hollywood. No buildings are blown up, the only sex scene involves a brief encounter between a fat hooker and a thief and the closest thing to a car chase is a vehicle passing a delivery truck on a dark and lonely road.
The two truck drivers have just dumped their cargo (a group of illegal Indian immigrants) near the Czech-Slovak border. There's just one problem. They forgot to unload the baby. One of the smugglers wants to leave the kid in a ditch, but the other has a good heart. He insists they take the child to Prague, and once there, he promptly sells him to the sleazy operators of a pawnshop.
The transaction sets in motion a tale that entwines the lives of swindlers, an infertile couple and an extended family with more secrets than your average soap opera.
If you see this movie at the Flicks, wait at least a half hour before knocking back your first beer or glass of wine. The opening scenes introduce a multitude of characters in rapid succession, and you'll need to stay sober if you're going to keep them straight. And don't forget, you'll have to read subtitles.
Two of the central protagonists, Franta and Mila, live in a grungy apartment. Mila desperately wants a child, but she is unable to conceive one. The couple cannot adopt either, because Franta has a violent streak and a passion for soccer which garnered him a criminal record. Undeterred, Mila cashes out their savings and buys the Indian baby from the pawnshop. Her act ultimately brings out the best and the worst in her husband.
The baby's real mother seeks assistance from the beautiful Hanka, an aid worker in a refugee center. Hanka shares a stately home with the much older Oto, and they have a teenaged daughter. Oto is an academy professor. When the communists took control of the country after World War II, he was compelled to teach civics to elementary school children but later regained his position at the academy. He unexpectedly collapses from a brain tumor, and in the interim before his surgery, his estranged son Martin flies in from Brisbane, Australia, to see him. Martin also reunites with his mother Vra.
Czechoslovakian history plays a role in this film, and it's useful to know the basics. For example, the Velvet Revolution removed the communist regime from power in December 1989. Vaclav Havel led the rebellion, and was elected president the same year (he appears as himself in the movie). In 1990, for the first time in over 40 years, the people held democratic elections. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia three years later.
After the revolution, the country experienced a torrent of political, social and economic change. Up and Down is set in current times, so about 20 years have passed since the communists held sway. The film explores the way ordinary citizens respond to increased immigration and the economic realities of a newly capitalist society. Underneath it all, themes of love and loss rumble.
During the family dinner reuniting Oto with his son Martin, Vera guzzles beer, complains of gas and sings a few bars of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." Tensions build as we learn Oto prospered after the occupation while Vera continues to struggle. She tells him, "When a man has support he can overcome anything." Is she suggesting Oto conspired with the Soviets to retain his wealth or do her words express a belief in the power of love? In the context of Up and Down, it doesn't matter. Her point is that navigating life alone is a tough road to take.
The movie turns on alliances and often unites the protagonists in twisted and unexpected ways. Thieves team up to rob victims in one scene and squabble over the spoils in the next. A lover sacrifices for a partner, only to be spurned or betrayed at a later time.
Like any good foreign film, Up and Down does not wrap the various threads in a neat Hollywood bow. As the movie nears its conclusion, the camera cuts quickly between various scenes of group support. Martin kicks a soccer ball with his son on an Australian beach, doctors wheel Oto into surgery while Hanka sits pensively in the hospital waiting room, and an assembly of racist soccer fans gather to watch a match on television. They stand and chant in unison, "End the game."
The camera also captures loneliness. Vera smokes. The hooligans cries recall a skinhead rally, but also attest to each man's isolation in a global society that has left him behind. And Mila sits splayed on a bench, watching the world pass her by.