A septuagenarian Czech retiree acts the prankster, much to the consternation of his practical-minded wife and their son, in Vladmir Michalek’s droll, deceptively easygoing “Autumn Spring.” It’s a sly, wry fable about the refusal to grow old that has poignancy as well as charm.
The central character is Frantisek “Fanda” Hana (Vlastimil Brodsky), a spry old duffer who spends his time with his buddy Eduard “Eda” Stara (Stanislav Zindulka) playing jovial tricks on others. Some of the jokes are just spontaneous bits of blarney–as when the duo pretend to be railway inspectors to get kisses from a couple of young turnstile-jumpers–but others are much more elaborate. It’s one of the latter that gets them into trouble: when they impersonate a retired opera singer and his manager to secure an expensive private viewing of a large estate, the real-estate man tracks Fanda down to demand reimbursement of his costs. The sudden depletion of their meagre resources distresses his loving but long-suffering wife Emilie (Stella Zazvorkova), who’s been scrimping for years just to save for their funerals–particularly since Fanda is also objecting to a plan for him and Emilie to move to a retirement home in order to free up their flat for their ex-daughter-in-law in order to please their son Jaroslav (Ondrej Vetchy), who’s tired of having his ex-wife live with him and his new spouse (who is understandably none too happy about the arrangement). To make matters worse, Fanda spends the little money he still has helping old friends while repeatedly missing visits from his son and grandchildren. When Fanda plays an especially cruel trick on her, Emilie’s frustration reaches such a level that she actually hires a lawyer to divorce him; and meanwhile Eda’s health takes a sad turn.
In the wrong hands this scenario might have been insufferably cute and mawkish. But here the treatment is extraordinarily skillful. Michalek directs Jiri Hubac’s script lightly, without undue emphasis on either its farcical elements of its more serious ones. And he’s fortunate to have assembled what’s basically a dream cast. Brodsky, Zazvorkova and Zindulka interact with the easy grace and affection of people who have actually known each other–and lived with each other’s foibles–for decades. The sequences in which Fanda and Emilie visit the small cemetery where she’s secured them burial plots, or the one in which Fanda and Eda visit a retired diva from the theatre where they used to work, have a gentle, unforced tone that’s revealing without turning shrill. Even the divorce hearing, which could have been played in a heavy-handed fashion, comes off unaffectedly. And the denouement doesn’t become overpoweringly teary, either. Unlike so many Hollywood pictures about oldsters, “Autumn Spring” doesn’t bludgeon one with the creaky charm of the characters; and as a result that charm comes through all the more winningly.
Incidentally, the original Czech title of the film was “Babi Leto,” which means “Indian Summer”–something that would certainly be more straightforwardly meaningful to American viewers. But this translation is apt enough; after all, Fanda might be old, but he still has a sprightly spring in his step.