Up and Down (Horem pádem) (Czech Republic, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Up and Down, from renowned Czech director Jan Hrebejk, is a mix of drama and black comedy, with a fair amount of social commentary stirred in. It targets racism and social injustice while developing characters we gradually come to sympathize with. The story arrives complete with a biting wit and several moments guaranteed to provoke laughter. But, as Variety scribe Eddie Cockrell points out, "Hrebejk wants us to laugh through the tears."

Up and Down tells a number of different stories, most of which connect tangentially. However, although there are at least ten significant characters, the film manages to find its rhythm and tell its tale in less than two hours. (Most ensemble pieces of this sort - Robert Altman's Nashville and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia being prime examples - tend towards the three-hour mark.) Hrebejk also does not force his diverse stories to converge at the climax. Each reaches its own separate, natural conclusion, although editing helps tie things together, at least thematically.

The first of the two major storylines centers on Frantisek Fikes (Jirí Machácek), a former soccer hooligan who is trying to turn his back on his old bully ways and make a new life with Mila (Natasa Burger). More than anything else, she wants a child - but she is unable to conceive and Frantisek's criminal past prevents them from adopting. Mila is so desperate that one day she buys a child off the black market - the seemingly abandoned baby of foreign refugees. At first, Frantisek is aghast. Not only do he and Mila risk being caught by the authorities, but the baby has dark skin. As a confirmed white supremacist, this is a horrifying development. However, as Frantisek begins to care for the child, his heart softens to the point where he turns away his racist mentor, the Colonel (Jaroslav Dusek).

Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, but still within the city of Prague, Martin (Petr Forman) has come home to see his estranged father, Oto (Jan Triska), who will soon undergo surgery for a brain tumor. It's a strained family reunion. Oto's wife, Vera (Emília Vásáryová) has not lived with him for 20 years, and he now wants a divorce so he can marry his mistress of two decades, Hana (Ingrid Timková). To further complicate matters, Hana is a former girlfriend of Martin's. Hana and Oto have a daughter, 18-year old Lenka (Kristýna Boková), and Martin wonders whether she is his sister or his daughter.

Up and Down also includes less fully developed interludes featuring a pair of truck drivers who smuggle refugees across the Czech border, two thieves who prey upon innocent tourists, and the cops who take an unconcerned view of crime in their district. These smaller tales form the glue that joins the larger ones. For the most part, however, Martin and Frantisek live unconnected lives until fate nudges them into each other's spheres of influence. For Martin, the encounter is brief and unremarkable, but it has powerful repercussions for Frantisek.

One of the obvious targets of Hrebejk's ire is racism. By making the Colonel an over-the-top caricature of the worst kind of bigot, the director illustrates the folly of such superficial hatred. And, by allowing Frantisek to navigate the path from inflexible white supremacist to caring father, he shows that love can melt even the most entrenched prejudice. Vera is also a bigot, and, through an ironic twist, Hrebejk shows how much in life her hatred is causing her to miss. Martin understands her too well.

Up and Down also exposes many of the failures of the Czech system. Exploitation of the weak is encouraged and "reform" is more of a concept than a reality. When someone like Frantisek truly wants to change, he finds the task to be nearly insurmountable. Part of it is bureaucracy and part is indifference. Frantisek may want to become a decent, productive member of society, but he has been labeled as a soccer hooligan, and he may ultimately have no choice but to play that part.

Martin's story is based on real-life events from the life of internationally acclaimed director Milos Forman (whose movies include One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Amadeus). As a nice gesture, Hrebejk uses one of Forman's sons, Petr, to play the part of Martin. Forman's brother also has a cameo. Although the events of Frantisek's life are not based on any one individual's experience, they are drawn from anecdotes collected by Hrebejk, and the director's wife represents the template used for Hana.

Up and Down is an accomplished film that uses dark humor to leaven its serious topics. Yet even the film's flippant moments - such as a comment about Michael Jackson's skin color - contain truth. And, although the movie's multiple narratives may employ irony and satire liberally, Hrebejk always takes the characters and their plights seriously. Even the use of sometimes garish filters cannot obscure the people inhabiting this world, and their interaction makes the journey of Up and Down worth taking.

Up and Down (Horem pádem) (Czech Republic, 2004)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled Czech
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1