Up and Down is the first film by Czech director Jan Hrebejk with a contemporary setting, and it combines two modes characteristic of current festival cinema. One is the mystical ensemble drama in which all of a movie’s disparate characters are ultimately connected; the other, exemplified by the hit import Head-On, is the spectacle of the new multi-cultural Europe.
Both modes evoke, if only superficially, the experience of globalism—or, in the case of the Czech Republic, a post-Communist internationale. Appropriately, Up and Down—co-written, like several of the 37-year-old Hrebejk’s previous features, by his schoolmate Petr Jarchovsky—opens with the sounds of a Balkan brass band (and the words “Hello America”) and a couple of smugglers sitting around a Slovakian truck stop chewing over the disgusting memory of Thai deep-fried bat. Then they proceed to drive across the Czech border in a van crammed with illegal South Asian immigrants.
As with Divided We Fall (2000), the only previous Hrebejk-Jarchovsky feature to have an American release, paternity is the key to national identity—as well as domestic bliss. In that darkish comedy, set in Czechoslovakia during the German occupation, a Jewish escapee from a concentration camp is hidden by a childless gentile couple. The local Nazi collaborationist has designs on the spare room in the couple’s apartment and so, in a deeply ironic evocation of national rebirth, the fugitive secures everyone’s position by getting the woman pregnant.
Less optimistic in its view of cultural identity and not so generous in its sense of human relations, Up and Down features two families of disparate classes, with new or returned children. An abandoned Indian baby is sold on the black market to the quasi-reformed soccer hooligan Franta (Czech rock star Jiri Machacek) and his desperately childless wife, Mila (Natasa Burger). Elsewhere in Prague, the bourgeois professor Otto collapses (while delivering a class lecture on immigration) and, facing a risky medical operation, stage-manages a reunion with his long-abandoned wife, Vera, her redundancy emphasized by her job as a Russian translator, and their son Martin, the proprietor of a Brisbane surf shop, who has not communicated with his father in 20 years.
A movie of bilious light and cramped, cluttered spaces, Up and Down is broader than the classic Czech comedies that are referenced both in its tone and casting. (The parts of Otto and Vera are taken by actors, Jan Triska and Emilia Vasaryova, associated with the ’60s new wave; Petr Forman, the son of Milos Forman, plays Martin.) The narrative is a matter of spiraling complications and absurd misunderstandings, many of them staged around the dinner table. Meanwhile, the two utterly different but equally unstable families head toward each other like ships in the night—the inevitable convergence occurring at the KFC where Franta works as a security guard.
American fast-food franchises are only one aspect of the new Czech social order. From Otto’s excruciating riff on an African student whose Christian name is Lenin to the fellow hooligan who visits Franta and freaks when he sees the complexion of his friend’s new baby, every other conversation in the movie obsessively returns to the subject of the country’s newcomers. The professor’s new companion works in a refugee center. To bait her, Vera complains that she’s the ethnic minority in her building—the other apartments are inhabited by “nothing but immigrants from Slovakia, Romania, and other armpits.” (“Mom, I’m an immigrant too,” Martin mildly points out.) Late in the movie former president Václav Havel appears as himself, escorting a pair of visiting Burmese dissidents. And of course, most of the lowlife thieves are Gypsies.
Up and Down is not exactly the toughest movie on the block, but especially compared to most American comedies, it conveys a sense of scrofulous rue. As the Czech Republic struggles to find its place in the European free market, those who can escape to happier lands do so. The closest thing to a Czech national rebirth the film provides is the sterile idiot nationalism of the soccer hooligans. The only justice is the beating that Franta administers, unknowing, to the agent of his misery. Life goes on, as embodied by the collection of mechanical toys that Vera keeps on her shelf.