Freer, perhaps, but still absurd: Life post-communism in the Czech Republic remains laden with ironies in Up and Down, a lively, thought-provoking new drama.
Director Jan Hrebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky build the story around two families (actually, several) whose paths intersect: one accidentally torn apart, and another just as precipitously, and just as unwillingly, brought back together. An Indian couple, smuggled into the country, are separated from their baby, who ends up -- via a pawn shop -- in the hands of Mila (Natasa Burger), a young woman desperate for motherhood, and her man, Franta (Jiri Machacek), a slow-witted security guard and recovering soccer hooligan. Meanwhile, the sickbed request of an elderly history professor named Oto (Jan Triska) occasions a visit from the family his teen-age daughter never knew: Oto's estranged first wife, Vera, and middle-aged son, Martin (Petr Forman), who lives in Australia and hasn't seen either of his parents in 20 years. Less than pleased is Oto's rather younger current mate, Hana (Ingrid Timkova) -- who was with Martin before settling on his father.
As Up and Down tells it, the fledgling Czech Republic is struggling with both emigration and immigration. Its characters are examined through this prism so thoroughly that you might retitle the film Here and There. Oto teaches about historical migration patterns, while Hana does refugee work with a humanitarian group. Martin, of course, is an emigrant, while Vera, who once left the country to escape communist rule, now resents the Slovaks and Romanians who populate her rundown neighborhood.
Then there's that baby, whose parents spend the film looking for him, and whose dark skin sends Franta into paroxysms after Mila unveils, one afternoon, their newly acquired son ("I didn't steal him, I bought him"). But Franta's quickly assuaged anger pales next to that of the Colonel, the soccer fanatic and malign father figure who unleashes a racist diatribe on seeing the baby in its cradle.
Up and Down confronts heavy issues, but except for some distracting visual strategies -- many scenes come garishly tinted gold -- it's fast-paced and easy to watch. Hrebejk and Jarchovsky, previously collaborators on the solid Holocaust drama Divided We Fall, pepper Up and Down with a similar mix of wit, good humor and endearing character bits. The writing is incisive and the acting intelligent. And if we forgive the occasional puzzler (such as portraying Australia as a paradise of racial tolerance), its messages, packed in layers of irony, are ultimately sobering. One person's heartbreak might be another's windfall. The only people who understand you might be a bunch of racist thugs. And adopted homes, the immigrant's refuge, can prove truer shelters than one's own birthplace. In Czech, with subtitles.