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Autumn Spring

GOING IN STYLE

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Fanda Hána is a rogue. With his old friend Ed, the septuagenarian roams the Prague subway, claiming to be a ticket checker, and letting a trio of pretty girls pass without tickets if each girl gives each man a kiss.

Fanda Hána is a thief. Posing as a man of unlimited means, he tours an estate for sale (including cherry orchard), asks for the price in U.S. dollars ($1.5 mil), then gets the real estate agent to take him and Ed to lunch at a fancy French restaurant (where he sends back the wine).

Fanda Hána is a liar. When the real estate agent catches up with him, and presents him with a hefty bill for his fraud, he raids the fund that his infinitely suffering wife has squirreled away for their funerals -- a passage that Fanda simply refuses to believe will ever come. Then when she discovers it's gone he weaves a tall tale about the missing money.

Fanda Hána is Vlastimil Brodsk_, a lion of his nation's plucky cinema, who ended his career -- and soon after, his own life -- with Vladimir Michálek's Autumn Spring, a sad and charming lament of age and time, performed by a pride of old Czech actors. The Czechs refer to their national character as "laughter through the tears," but Autumn Spring more often inverts the aphorism. Its sadness is palpable all through the good-hearted Fanda's mischief -- like when he pretends to be the long-lost friend of a stranger he meets at the graveyard, then gives the man money to place flowers on his wife's fresh grave.

Better yet, Fanda and Ed are theater actors, so Michálek's fiction has a reflexive edge. (Brodsk_'s career goes back beyond his role as the railway officer in Jiri Menzel's Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains.) Autumn Spring dramatizes Fanda's bon vivance (he's learning French), but also the refusal of his nation's cinema to quit, despite a long intermission that began in 1968, when Russian tanks squelched the emerging freedom of the exhilarating Prague Spring. The movie's ending is delicate, plaintive and romantic, and then Michálek presents a coda whose poignant resonance foreshadows real life.

"Old men should be rich," Fanda tells Ed as they wander around town, looking for their next affirmation (i.e. scam). "And respected," Ed adds. They both agree. Later, they visit an old friend, an octogenarian chanteuse (Zita Kabátová, who made her first film in 1936) who's preserved a bottle of Spanish wine, given to her by a favorite tenor 60 years earlier. It's a special reunion for the three old thespians, so they open the wine, only to learn that it's turned to jelly. They pour the sludgy liquid anyway and, laughing through the tears, go on. In Czech, with subtitles.

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