Friday, 4 December 2020

Czech Film Review: Those Wonderful Years That Sucked

By Lee Robert Adams | Prague Daily Monitor |
15 July 2020

If you're a regular follower of my Czech Film Review blog you'll know that I have a long-standing beef with movies based on the works of Michael Viewegh. I hate them so much that I'm kind of addicted to them. Not only are they sexist, ageist and homophobic, they're also just so damned mean-spirited, with a nihilistic attitude towards human relationships. Perhaps the subtleties of Viewegh's writing don't adapt well to the screen, but from the film adaptations Viewegh appears to hate all his characters, especially women. What makes him such a black-hearted misanthrope? It's like a puzzle I need to solve.

So I arrived at Those Wonderful Years That Sucked, based on Viewegh's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Semi-autobiographical, eh? It's probably going to be a heinous chore just like his other adaptations (From Subway with Love, Holiday Makers), I thought, but maybe I'll find some answers...

What a pleasant surprise it was. Spanning three decades and encompassing the Prague Spring, the insidious period of Normalisation during the intervening years, and closing with a bittersweet post-Revolution denouement, Those Wonderful Years That Sucked is a breezy, hugely enjoyable comedy-drama built around terrific performances by a charming cast.

Ondřej Vetchý and Libuše Šafránková - such a lovable, charismatic onscreen couple - play a talented but disorganized economist and his fretful, artsy wife. In the opening scenes, set in 1963, he's busy shuttling around the city with a choice cut of pork and dangerously failing his driving test; she's heavily pregnant and about to go into labour but is insistent on attending a theatre production of Waiting for Godot.

She gives birth to their son, Kvido, backstage, and by the time the Warsaw Pact troops roll in to crush the Prague Spring uprising five years later, the boy has already grown into a pudgy, over-achieving brat who regards the world with the snootiness of a highbrow theatre critic.

To get away from the volatile situation in Prague, the father accepts an administrative position in a small town, and the family leave the city for the countryside. This seems like the set up for some typically Czech bumpkincore comedy, but the film retains its political focus. Initially, the father finds a dream home for his family, but due to his status as someone politically questionable, they are only able to access the property's conservatory.

Freezing cold and living in a cramped, inadequate space, the father is encouraged by his staunchly communist boss, Šperk (Vladimír Javorský), to join the party and become more "politically visible" - ie: fly the soviet flag, play on the football team and attend Leninist/Marxist classes.

The father admirably holds out, although his co-worker friend readily signs up for the communist party to enjoy the perks of a decent apartment and foreign travel, while justifying to himself that joining the party allows him to act in camouflage. Meanwhile, the mother is trying hard not to bump into a dissident playwright who also lives in the village. She performed in some of his plays years ago, but they fear that being associated with him might result in recrimination from the state.

With Kvido falling ill and a second baby on the way, the father eventually succumbs and toes the Party line, instantly rewarded with a big country house and opportunities to travel abroad. The latter sows the seeds of his downfall, however, as his head is turned by an improbably hot Yugoslav business partner. Suspecting her husband is having an affair, the mother reaches out to her old playwright friend with a view to arranging a revenge date, dangerously exposing the family to the regime's secret police.

Caught socializing with the enemy, the father is humiliatingly busted down to a menial role, and his mental health deteriorates as the paranoia sets in. The only way to snap him out of it, the family reasons, is for Kvido to provide a grandchild by his childhood sweetheart...

Much of the charm of Those Wonderful Years That Sucked is the skilful way Nikolaev spans such a long period of time, never losing focus of the dangers facing the family while maintaining an upbeat, comic tone. Even in the last third, where the father is driven to the verge of a mental breakdown by his situation and the constant fear of surveillance, is treated with a featherlight touch and is all the more effective for it. So many comedy-dramas grind to a halt when things get serious, an obstacle Nikolaev's film hurdles with bagfuls of good grace.

The sexual development of Kvido, starting with "you show me yours and I'll show you mine" games while he's a little kid, through to his first furtive fumblings as a teenager, are almost a subplot. But this is where armchair psychologists like me, trying to get a handle on Viewegh's worldview, might start steepling their fingers with interest.

There are a few scenes that feel more obviously Viewegh-ish and closer in tone other adaptations of his work like Holidaymakers. There's the common theme of a husband chasing after a much younger, sexually attainable woman when his wife starts to age and lose her looks a bit (not that a mid-forties Šafránková had anything to worry about in that respect). Kvido's dad acts like a horny teenager around the Yugoslav business delegate, who has no qualms about getting her kit off during a canoeing trip. It's around this time that Kvido also gets all angsty about his looks, as his childhood sweetheart is hanging around with a hunky, handsome local lad. If these two moments have some biographical element to them, could this have been when Viewegh's cynical attitudes toward women and relationships started to set in?

It’s all speculation, of course, and doesn't make much impact on the overall enjoyment of a film that is light-years ahead of other Viewegh adaptations in every respect. I'd even go as far as to say that Those Wonderful Years that Sucked is the perfect introduction for newcomers to Czech movies, especially those who want to get a sense of what it was like for ordinary families living through the Communist era.

Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno. He studied film at uni, but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.