It's appropriate that Václav Havel, the playwright-president of the Czech Republic, graces Up and Down with a brief cameo. Havel's talents for absurdity and subtextual political satire distinguish his plays, while the screenplay for Up and Down—co-written by director Jan Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovsky—weaves the politics of borders into the comedy of human frailty.
The film opens on two blunt smugglers who, after transporting illegal Indian immigrants across the Czech border, discover that one of their cargo left a baby on board. As the underworld operation troubleshoots this problem (or is it an opportunity), Hrebejk and Jarchovsky shift to Prague, where Mila (Natasa Burger) laments, to her husband Franta (Jiri Machacek), "I need a baby" (problem: she can't conceive). Though he's trying to put his soccer-fan hooliganism behind him (at one point, he blusters, "There ain't no God. That's why I'm a fan"), Franta's probationary status disallows adoption. The wayward baby makes its way to the hapless couple, but the apparent solution is only the beginning of their farcical pursuit of stability.
An apparently separate plot thread develops across town, where ailing professor Otto (Jan Triska) serves as the pivot point for an awkward reunion. Martin, his son from a previous marriage (Petr Forman; yep: Milos's son), long living in Australia, returns with his mother Vera, Otto's ex (Emilia Vasaryova). Vera makes no attempt to placate Otto and his beautiful young lover (Ingrid Timkova). The sitdown of the foursome is a study in tension; inevitably, the topic of emigration causes much of the friction, with Vera—who feels profoundly spurned—spewing intolerant invective about outsiders. Back at Franta's place, a visit from his soccer-fan buddy "The Colonel" includes the guest's comment "Who can blame me if I want this little country for me and my white kids?" even as Franta frantically tries to conceal his non-white baby.
Hrebejk and Jarchovsky keep the ironic situations (and gallow's humor) coming as fickle fate guides the stories to converge, almost casually. Ineffectual bureaucracy is a common denominator; one scene depicts cops obliged to play concierge to thieves. Mostly, Up and Down is seasoned with the everyday absurdities of artificial social boundaries. In its roundabout way, the film illustrates that whatever the nation, we're all the same, so the only sane response is compassion. For whatever reason, this simple lesson has proved the hardest to learn. The credits roll over a pan of Vera's menagerie of kitschy toys, as good a symbol as any of stalled global diversity, whirring up and down and round and round in endless cycles, collected and shelved.
Up and Down gets a very nice treatment on DVD, courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Naturally, the original Czech audio track is supplied, along with English subtitles. The disc does an excellent job of reproducing the photography and color process of cinematographer Jan Malír, with nary a digital blemish. The disc also includes two especially noteworthy special features for fans of the film and director Jan Hrebejk: Dan Barta's bouncy music video of the opening title song "Hello America" (shots of the song's recording interspersed with clips from the film) and an 18-minute documentary entitled "The Behind the Scenes of Up and Down."
At the beginning of the doc, star Jaroslav Dusek says, "I like it when I can see what the movie will be from the behind-the-scenes footage. But sometimes the behind-the-scenes stuff is pretty bad." No worries here: the invaluable all-access documentary (shot for Czech TV) manages to represent the film accurately while convincingly portraying just about the happiest film set you've ever seen, with professionals either calmly rehearsing, lighting, and shooting the film, or beaming with delight to be working with Hrebejk. Aside from the customary cast and crew insights, viewers get an all-access pass to see an initial read-through, actor Jiri Machacek shaving his head for the role, on-set preparations for scenes, and amusingly flubbed takes. It's rare to see so much as B-roll footage from a funky foreign film like Up and Down, so "The Behind the Scenes of Up and Down" is a real treat.
Rounding out the disc are the international trailer for the film and ten additional previews for 3-Iron, Dark Blue World, Divided We Fall, Imaginary Heroes, Kung Fu Hustle, Layer Cake, Look At Me, Off the Map, Walk On Water, and Zelary (those hungering for more Czech cinema should note that Dark Blue World, Divided We Fall, and Zelary are all Czech films). The much-awarded, critically acclaimed Up and Down eagerly awaits a spin in your DVD player.
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