August 31, 2006
Beautiful 'Something' finds joy, and humanity, in a wasteland
By Ty Burr
``Stestí," the original Czech title of Bohdan Sláma's very fine new film, translates roughly as ``a fluke," or ``a stroke of luck," but its English title -- ``Something Like Happiness" -- is equally appropriate. The characters here sneak up on joy as though it were a swimming pool of unknown depths: they dip in a toe and retreat, circle the edges, wonder whether to take the plunge. By the end, we're ready to jump in with them.
The couple's friend Toní k (Pavel Liska) has discovered a third way: to the disgust of his father (Martin Huba), he's squatting in the decrepit family farm, patching the roof as best he can with help from his stubborn aunt (Zuzana Kronerová). The factory owners want to buy the land, but the two aren't budging, and if that house is a metaphor for larger states of decay -- social, national, emotional -- the filmmakers wisely don't push it.
With his high-rise hair and uncertain personal hygiene, Toní k is a walking disaster; his only constant is the torch he has carried for Monika since childhood. The two are thrown together -- all right, they move slowly toward each other -- when a third friend, the unstable Dasha (Anna Geislerová), lurches toward a mental breakdown after her married boyfriend (Marek Daniel) jilts her. Dasha's self-absorbed negligence toward her two toddlers is as painful for us to watch as it is for Monika and Toní k.
This, the film says, is how families grow in the backwaters of the modern Czech Republic -- by sudden sideways accretions and unexpected kindnesses. Sláma shows us a wasteland whose inhabitants have to be reminded of their humanity by the better angels in their midst. Vilhelmová, who has the face of a rust belt Modigliani, turns Monika's dilemma -- should she stay or should she go, to paraphrase the Clash -- into an exquisitely small-scale struggle. As Toní k, Liska mopes with shaggy-dog charm, while Geislerová makes Dasha a proper horror.
It's the comic, touching glimpses into a society run aground that make ``Something Like Happiness" special and link it with the gentle fables of the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s. The camerawork by Divis Marek caresses the clutter as if it were made of diamonds. Baths and bathtubs preoccupy many of the characters -- Toní k is building a hot tub in his back yard , if he can ever get the chickens out of it -- but it will take more than water to cleanse the grime of the past.
Nor is America, with its distant seductions, an answer. ``Something Like Happiness" flirts with sentimentality but settles into a tone more ramshackle and profound: An understanding that reclamation starts at home and that the homes we build cannot belong to others.
Beautiful little movie. See it if you can.
--Ty Burr/ The Boston Globe - Review
February 3, 2006
Something Like Happiness
By Michael Rechtshaffen
Bottom line: A richly observed, nicely nuanced portrait of lives in transition.
Czech filmmaker Bohdan Slama, whose feature debut, "Wild Bees," was well-received on the festival circuit, returns with another richly observed, nicely nuanced portrait of lives in transition.
In "Something Like Happiness," the Czech Republic's official Oscar submission and a boxoffice success on home soil, three friends who grew up together in a housing project situated in the shadow of an imposing industrial plant each find themselves addressing issues concerning the pulling up of roots and familial obligations.
There's Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmova), an idealistic young woman who works in a supermarket while patiently awaiting an invitation from her boyfriend to join him in America.
Then there's her childhood friend, Tonik (Pavel Liska), a gentle spirit/lost soul who has left his suffocating, conservative parents and joined his eccentric aunt at her dilapidated farmhouse, which his father's factory is trying to tear down.
Their problems are small potatoes compared to those of Dasha (Ana Geislerova), an emotionally volatile mother of two young children with a married boyfriend who's just one breakdown away from an extended stay in the psychiatric ward.
When the inevitable does happen, Tonik convinces Monica to join him in caring for Dasha's two abandoned children at his aunt's farm, where they form a curious if fleeting family unit.
Preferring to let everything unfold in its own organic time frame (with the various characters' relationships deliberately made difficult to initially sort out), Slama has constructed a thoughtfully performed, gently quirky human drama about choices made and their often surprising consequences.
--Michael Rechtshaffen/ The Hollywood Reporter - Review