Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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JIRI HAVELKA: OWNERS/VLASTNÍCI (2019)

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SCENE FROM OWNERS

TRAILER

Czech theatrical tour de force about squabbling flat dwellers

You can say this film from a celebrated Czech play is a revelation of post-Communist society's fragmentation and decay. But while the viewing experience requires patience - there are a lot of subtitles to read; this is talky stuff, there is something universal here. This is about how any group of people are basically just wrapped up in their own desires and personalities, and how hard it is to come to any agreement on the common welfare. But more fundamentally than that, this is simply a theatrical tour de force. It brings together a dozen or more people, shows them off one by one, brings them into conflict, ramps up the action to a frenzy, then enacts an ironic denouement, deflating the balloon it has skillfully blown up and bringing the piece to an end.

Mind you, this is very talky stuff, people jawing in a room around a big table. But theatrical magic is often made that way. Think August, Osage County; think Twelve Angry Men. Havelka, the playwright-director has created a gallery of distinct types. There is first of all the well-meaning couple at the center of the meeting, Mrs. Zahrádková (Tereza Ramba), who chooses to run the meeting and Mr. Zahrádka (Vojtech Kotek), whom she sets up as the rather malleable secretary. There is a severe lady who brings up rules of order, seeming to want to block any progress. There is Mr. Novák (Ondrej Malý), the big childish man who has lived all his life with his mother, who now is dying, leaving him lost, but at the same time excited to be elevated to the level of "owner," an adult at last. There is the little man who has a little company to sell anything the building seems to need.

A cornerstone is Mr. Kubát (Jirí Lábus), the diehard communist, longtime resident, quick to point out for anything that comes up that it was done better in the old days. There are newcomers: two non identical twins, with legal training, who seem eager to help but eventually turn out to have something very slippery up their sleeves. There's a man with a Japanese wife (repeatedly mistaken for Chinese) who is pregnant: or does she just want attention? There are several middle-aged woman who are skillful obstructionists. One who lives on the first floor is utterly opposed to an elevator. One rents to young African students.

There is a gay man, whom Mr. Kubat repeatedly addresses with homophobic epithets. In fact the language throughout is so frequently sexist, obscene, homophobic and racist many viewers will be offended. It reflects where we have come, a world where civility is lost. If this is one serious fault of a drama seemingly about a committee meeting (where people normally get together to accomplish some common goal), remember these characters are theatrical creations, designed to entertain. If this were a real committee meeting nobody would want to watch it. Forty minutes in I was afraid it was just that and was on the verge of bailing. But be assured, this is simply material for each character's personal drama.

But it is sometimes a weakness of Havelka's writing that he's more interested in personality and drama than in story. It's never fully defined whether the building is on the verge of collapse or just needs some reorganizing and improvement, like an elevator.

But why this doesn't ultimately matter so much and the film becomes increasingly entertaining as it progresses (though it peters out at the end, the energy deflated the players departed) is simply this: writing and acting are both top-notch. Havelka manipulates the multiple conflicts among characters with constant invention, with a gradual crescendo, more and more conflicts and individual explosions. People get mad and threaten to leave, are persuaded to stay, finally go. The biggest explosion - but there are many - is of Mr. Novák when he gets that little phone call, everything stops, and we learn his sick mother has died, and he is an owner, and his greatest joy is his greatest grief.

All this is pure theater. The material Havelka works with is stock in trade for the ex Soviet Union. In fact this is a world not very far out of the Communist one, because these "Owners" are bureaucrats mired in Soviet-style deceit and obfuscation.

This is a very special pleasure, not for everyone, but an impressive theatrical artifact, cunningly designed and brilliantly performed. And crafted with admirable economy in an hour and a half.

Owners/Vlastníci, 97 mins., opened Nov. 21, 2019 in Czech Republic and Slovakia; also in Poland in 2023. Screened for this review for its 2023 US theatrical release. It opens at Quad Cinema in New York Aug. 18 and at Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles Aug. 25.

See Czech Film Review for more details.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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