Vratne lahve

(Empties, Czech Republic - 2007)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Zdenek Sverak, Daniela Kolarova, Tatiana Vilhelmova, Alena Vranova, Jiri Machacek
Genre: Coedy/Drama
Director: Jan Sverak
Screenplay: Zdenek Sverak
Cinematography: Vladimir Smutny
Composer: Ondrej Soukup

"For a little love, I would go to the edge of the world bareheaded and barefooted" - Josef Tkaloun quoting Jaroslav Vrchlicky

The final chapter in the Sverak’s trilogy about maturation in the midst of unwanted societal changes, following The Elementary School and Kolya, has aging father/star/writer Zdenak Sverak acting as youthful as ever in his pursuit to regain not only his smile, but that of everyone around him. Ever adjusting to the dehumanizing changes capitalism has brought to the Czech Republic, the older characters display the usual mix of longing (they miss the public library, which was replaced by one of the patented useless western superficiality businesses) and regret (over being dated and less revelant).

Josef Tkaloun (Zdenak) begins as a miserable 65-year-old elementary school teacher who, unlike his wife and former colleague Eliska (Daniela Kolarova), has refused to be put out to pasture (seemingly only to carry one with one of the other teachers). Josef doesn’t simply long for good times and conduct the cliched elderly life of living for, and vicariously through, his child and grandchild, he refuses to surrender his imagination (in all it’s sexually obsessed glory), and that gives him the guts to take the chances and make the changes necessary to still have a good life despite being past his physical prime.

Josef wants the same things as everyone else: love, fulfillment, and understanding. His one advantage is he actually realizes he isn’t in the right spot, so he keeps experimenting with new jobs and pastimes until he, and everyone around him, are happy (or at least where he wants them to be). Quickly determining his old body isn’t cut out for speedy message delivery via bicycle, but also that he maintains enough mental agility, as well as cleverness, imagination, charm, and manipulative powers to maneuver the pieces in his life, Josef treats his new job in the bottle return department as not merely the occasion for some of the human interaction technology is replacing, but as an opportunity for human betterment. Rather than being the usual mind numbing dead end job (the title comes from his task of stacking the empty bottles, though the coming of the bottle recycling machine soon renders him unnecessary, but metaphorically means the old and used up can easily be refilled and renewed), in between fantasies over women he knew and meets, Josef finds his real calling as a goodhearted but meddlesome supermarket cupid who tries to fulfill the lives of his family, friends, and acquaintances.

I normally despise this sort of film, but Empties isn’t drowning in Splenda or ripe with the usual overbearing cuteness. It also isn’t one of those malicious comedies, there’s a sort of tragedy to every character that isn’t forgotten, and thus when we laugh at the comic situations they get themselves into, we are essentially laughing at their humanity, at that which we find familiar to us all.

Jan Sverak doesn’t force anything on us in this largely small-scale gentle comedy. He frames the scenes effectively (doing a wonderful job of presenting woman and the Czech countryside as fantastically beautiful), but outside of the (slightly out of place) climactic balloon ride where Josef & Eliska finally do something together, most of his effort lies in eliciting natural lively performances from the characters, who are very human, and more than a bit selfish but never overly likeable or dislikable.

The acting is top notch with Zdenak giving a highly potent performance as the petulant yet gentle benevolent old man. Kolarova is also commendable for keeping her dissatisfaction and disapproval for her husbands inattentive, wandering, juvenile, and non religious ways just beneath the surface.


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