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ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
23. 2. 2008

How to resist death

Babí léto (Indian Summer) (2001), directed by Vladimír Michálek

This film is a tour de force of three distinguished Czech actors of the older generation, Vlastimil Brodský, Stella Zázvorková and Stanislav Zindulka. First of all, though, it is a magnificent performance by Vlastimil Brodský. The belief that space for the realisation of individual human aspirations is restricted by unchangeable facts seems typically Czech. The Czech awareness that space for human initiative is always limited, is probably much closer to the understanding of the human predicament than the (Americanised) belief that radical action and the use of force may bring satisfaction and happiness.

(An excerpt, translated into English for international students at Glasgow University, taken from Jan Čulík's book on post-communist Czech feature film "Jací jsme", Host, Brno, 2007. More notes on recent Czech feature films in English are HERE)

In Babí léto, there are two main obstacles for the protagonists to grapple with: old age and regime change. The main characters are more than seventy years old. They have to deal with the imminence of death. They have spent their lives living under a totalitarian system. The arrival of the controversial, postcommunist, fraudulent democracy caught up with them at the very end of their lives. This era isn't theirs. They suddenly find themselves in an alien country. (No one wants to lend money to the two "adolescent" pensioners. "I have rung round all my friends. No will lend us anything. This did not use to be the case before," complains Mr. Hána. "The times have changed. It is only us who have remained the same," replies Mr. Mára.)

The film reflects the particular experience of countries with frequent regime changes such as Czechoslovakia, where people who are often only a little younger or older have completely different experiences, attitudes and values. This is, however, a general phenomenon: Each society develops and with advancing age, many older people start feeling like outcasts in their own societies, as the behaviour of their younger fellow citizens becomes incomprehensible to them.

Babí léto is a story of friendship of two old men, František Hána (Vlastimil Brodský) and Eduard Mára (Stanislav Zindulka) who are fighting against old age and alienation in the new post communist society. They do this in a distinctive, deliberately subversive and ironic way. They make fun of the new serious capitalistic society with its ideals of "enterpreneurship" and its individualism, by organising and carrying out complicated practical jokes. By making fun of the postcommunist reality amidst which they had now, unwittingly, found themselves, they indicate that the new society is not worthy of being taken seriously. (This attitude can be seen as an intertextual reference to Milan Kundera, see his Směšné lásky [Laughable Loves] and the story "Eduard a Bůh [Eduard and God]".) But their life under the previous, communist, regime, was not much more real. They were both employees of an operetta ensemble. Thus, communism was an "operetta" for them -- the two men lived in an unreal and unserious dream. After their rude awakening into the ruthless, fraudulent, pseudo-capitalist society of today, there is only one type of defence available. This type of defence is typical for human beings in serious trouble. When there is nothing else to be done, the only way out is to make fun of your situation. That is what the Jews did en route to the gas chambers. They mocked themselves. By making fun of yourself in an extremely difficult situation you alleviate your fear. In this respect, the film is both frivolous and profoundly serious.

Babí léto opens with a scene in which the two old men are "house-hunting" -- they are being shown round a luxury country mansion as its possible buyers. Hána pretends that he is an emeritus member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Later on, he pays dearly for this ironic practical joke -- the false house hunting visit to the country mansion is unmasked and the estate agent who had organised it for Hána and Mára fines Hána heavily. The two old age pensioners live in a society where there is no empathy or good will. The society is ruled by selfish vindictiveness. The estate agent could have appreciated Hána's joke and could have dismissed the whole matter without wishing to revenge himself on the pensioners.

(When Hána's son Jára orders a coffin because he had heard that his father had died of a heart attack, and the undertakers bring it to Mára's flat only to find that this was yet another practical joke and that Hána is alive, the undertakers also tell Jára vindictively, when he tells them to take away the coffin: "That'll cost you.")

On the whole, Hána and Mára's practical jokes usually fail, in spite of the characters' magnanimous geniality. Also, both men also are extremely profligate with money. This is another important sign. The older you are, the freer you are. Punishment is always associated with the threat of death. But at an advanced age we count on the fact that death might come at any moment -- we will not by frightened by a punishment involving death any more. Indeed, what sense would there be in trying to save money when you are almost 80 years old?

Almost everyone in this film who is "young" (i.e, younger than the pensionable age) behaves fraudulently, selfishly or jealously. (Mára's aunt, an owner of a flower shop, will not lend Hána and Mára any money because according to another of Hána's inventions, the loan would make it possible for Mára to earn a large amount of money by playing a part in an international film.)

The younger people in the film are not only selfish, but also self-indulgent. (Hána's son Jára has divorced twice, he lives with two of his wives and their children in the same flat and is trying to move out his parents from their flat and send them into an old people's home, so that he could give the flat to one of his former wives.) Younger people are "tough" capitalist enterpreneurs (the estate agent who fines Hána for wasting his time, or the owners of a casino who throw Hána and Mára out) or they are aggressive hysterical lunatics (the footballer husband of Hána's neighbour in the high rise block of flats, who repeatedly succumbs to fits of pathological jealousy).

The film is a space for an examination of interhuman relations on the playing field of limited human opportunities. The younger human beings fail. They lack empathy with their fellow human beings and a nobility of spirit.

It is worth while studying the relationship of František Hána and his wife Emily. Their marriage is a useful material for the examination of some male and female stereotypes in Central European society.

Women in Central Europe are not particularly liberated. Their social role in many contemporary works of film and literature tends to be simplified. Men, on the other hand, are usually depicted as weaklings who compensate for their pettiness and helplessness by being aggressive towards the people around them. But not even the idiosyncratic František Hána, who has retained his inquisitiveness, originality, humanity and sense of humour, can possibly be regarded as a desirable male character. This is seen when he meets and protects his neighbour before the fits of her jealous footballer husband. Even Hána is therefore one of a long line of "unusable", impossible Czech men.

His wife Emily is first presented as a fairly stereotyped caricature of a typical Czech grandmother who just mostly takes care of household chores and maintains all the necessary social and family rituals. As ever in contemporary Czech cinema, the long suffering women try, above all, to preserve relationships and to act as bonding agents in families. Emily's exaggerated obsession with cemeteries, funerals and her constant preparations for death are obviously designed to serve as a counterbalance to Hána's expansive activities and his anarchism. Then, however, there comes a change.

In the course of the film, Hána attempts to conform to his wife's stereotyped existence. He gives up his expansive way of life after he admits that he had gone too far when he had died pretended to have died of a heart-attack. This particular practical joke was intended as a punishment for Emily who had temporarily succumbed to the insistence of her son Jára to let him have the Hánas' flat. Emily becomes so angry that after forty-four years of marriage, she files for divorce. However, she still loves František and so she eventually stops the divorce proceedings. In repentance, František tries to become "obedient".

Fortunately, Emily misses her husband's anarchy and liveliness. So she repudiates Jára with his aspirations to take over their flat, and, at the end of the film, along with her husband, she organises yet another "house hunting" visit to a luxury castle in the Ostrava region, pretending that she and her husband are affluent buyers from abroad. Thus Emily accepts Hána's value system. The wife, who has so far been depicted as a stereotyped Czech woman who does the cooking and the cleaning in the house, has found new deep resources within herself and ceases behaving in a stereotyped manner.

But, of course, two different interpretations are possible -- either this is a rebellion of a full-blooded woman against the usual stereotyping of her gender, or the woman has actually conformed to a male perception of the world. At the end of the film, it is the youthfully anarchic, provocative attitude of František Hána which is victorious.

The film comes full circle -- it is as if its authors were trying to tell us that we can only defend ourselves against the superhuman limitations of our existence by ceasing to take the constricted playing field of our humanity seriously. It is of course obvious that even humour will not help us -- the world continues being imperfect and death will inevitably come in the end. Hána's friend Eda suffers a defeat which is a warning in this sense. He has a stroke and ends up paralysed in hospital. In spite of the fact that his place as Hána's co-prankster is taken over by Hána's wife, the victory of the husband and wife can always only be temporary.

Or does their defiant human rebellion survive as a cultural gesture? (If this is so, in this sense, the film would be returning to the value system of the 1960s in Central Europe, when a creative artistic act was regarded as an instrument of liberation and humanisation of the imperfect human existence, which is always threatened by oppression and death.) After all, Vlastimil Brodský and Stella Zázvorková, two of the three outstanding actors featuring in this film, are dead. What is left after them in this world is their magnificent film work over many decades, which of course includes Babí léto.

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