||The title of Jan Hrebejk’s drama detailing domestic difficulties among a variety of characters in the contemporary Czech Republic refers to the vicissitudes of life, but it also describes the film itself--and in the latter case the accent would definitely be on the last word. Not simply because what “Up and Down” has to say about the mind-set of today’s Czech society is quite bleak--it’s surely a downer in the colloquial sense--but because despite isolated moments of power and insight as a whole it’s a serious disappointment.
The picture is actually two stories linked at the close. The problem is that neither proves to be very compelling. One involves a troubled Prague couple, Frantisek (Jiri Machacek) and Miluska (Natassa Burger). He’s a former soccer thug turned security guard, his past preventing him from following the path he really wants, as a policeman. She’s a woman so shattered by her inability to bear children that she seriously considered kidnapping infants on the street. Miluska’s desire for a family gets a real chance at fulfillment when she’s offered a child by a gang of crooks--one that was inadvertently left in their truck by a group of illegal refugees recently smuggled across the border. Unfortunately, the baby is dark-skinned, and when Frantisek’s xenophobic soccer-club helmsman, The Colonel (Jarsolav Ducek), sees it, he berates the poor fellow as a traitor to his race and effectively excommunicates him. The other half of the film centers on Martin (Petr Forman), who returns to Prague after a two-decade absence in Australia, where he’s made a new life for himself with a wife and son. His trip is occasioned by the serious medical condition of his father Otakar (Jan Triska), a professor. Martin finds his parents bitterly estranged. Otakar abandoned Vera (Emilia Vasaryova) many years ago and took up with a student of his, Hana (Ingrid Timkova), with whom he now has a daughter, Lenka (Kristyna Liska-Bokova), whom her half-brother has never met. Meanwhile Vera, living alone and drinking heavily, has allowed her anger against her ex-husband and his new wife to build up uncontrollably, and she’s also become as vicious a racist as The Colonel in her own way. A dinner designed to serve as a general reconciliation between old and new family members turns out to be a disaster instead. The two separate narrative threads link up when Martin, on a brief outing before taking off for home, accuses Frantisek of being involved in the theft of his wallet and the cops get involved. Of course, the matter of that purchased baby has to be resolved, too.
What ties the varied strands of “Up and Down” together is the theme of bigotry--a point hammered home in the very different endings of the two tales Hrebejk and co-writer Petr Jarchovsky have spun--and it’s certainly courageous of them to make a film that’s basically an indictment of post-communist Czech society for its exclusionist and belligerent attitude toward foreigners. (A brief appearance by Vaclav Havel, though hardly integral to the plot per se, is clearly intended as a visual rebuke to such xenophobia.) But while one may applaud the film for tackling so serious a subject straight on, the approach the makers take is too tonally inconsistent to make the most of their argument. Grittily realistic drama, over-the-top soap operatic tantrums and raw-edged comedy are tossed incongruously together; the intent is probably to suggest the fissures and variances in modern eastern European culture through radically different moods as well as multiple stories, but the technique doesn’t link all the elements together smoothly enough to be effective. As a result there’s almost as much a sense of dislocation in the viewer as there is in the characters.
“Up and Down” does feature some good acting, with the physically striking Machacek making a deep impression and the more subtly shaded Triska an equally strong one. Ducek, looking a bit like Anthony Hopkins’ evil twin, shows a ferocity that’s quite powerful, and Liska-Bokova exhibits a likable quality as the representative of the more modern, open-minded generation. But Vasaryova goes too far over the top as the hate-filled Vera, Burger does her timid routine to excess, and Forman fails to make Martin register as the intended audience surrogate, the figure who represents the ability to escape from the burden of his nation’s political past and its socio-economic present. The supporting cast offer good if fleeting turns, and the film’s rather ragged look is an appropriate visual approximation of the unkempt society being portrayed.
But while parts of “Up and Down” are effective, as a whole it doesn’t measure up to its laudable ambition. Unfortunately, the last word of the title proves more accurate than the first.