The difficulty of life in post-Soviet Prague is treated in an engagingly unconventional fashion in Jan Hrebejk’s excellent ensemble dramedy, which avoids mawkishness while keeping its characters complex and treating even the least likable of them with a welcome degree of empathy.
“Beauty in Trouble” takes its title from Marcela Cmolikova (Ana Geisloverova), whose husband Jarda (Roman Luknar) has set up a chop-shop dealing in stolen cars in the wake of flooding that’s left their home a ruin and him unemployed. Unfortunately, his confederate brings him an auto with a GPS device that leads the police to his operation and him to jail.
It’s when she goes to the police station to berate him that Marcela meets the car’s owner, wealthy expatriate Evzen Benes (Josef Abrham), a vintner with a gorgeous spread in Tuscany, a kindly soul who takes an interest in her. Since she’s already moved, with her children Lucina (Michaela Mrvikova) and Kuba (Adam Misik), into the cramped apartment of her mother Zdena (Jana Brejchova) and her self-centered boyfriend Richard (Jiri Schmitzer), Marcela welcomes the older man’s attention and consideration. And when the creepy Richard gets abusive, she takes Evzen up on his offer to move into the top floor of the house he owns in the city. A quiet romance blossoms between the older man and the young woman, and eventually she and the children accompany him back to Italy.
But things are yet to be settled. Jarda gets out of prison, and when Marcela and Evzen return to Prague to settle their affairs—including the burial of her mother and the sale of his house, which turns out to be more complicated than expected (a commentary on the corruption that continues to afflict post-Soviet Eastern Europe)—he tries to win his wife back, at the urging of his frighteningly religious mother (Emilia Vasaryova). How things work out among all the characters—including the now-bereft Richard—fills the surprising final act.
What sets “Beauty in Trouble” apart is the tragicomic tone so often found in pictures of the old Soviet block, whose citizens had to develop a grim sense of humor in response to the situation they found themselves in, and the complexity of the characters—even Richard, who’s odious in many respects but pathetic (and curiously insightful) too, and Evzen, who seems almost preternaturally nice until he’s faced with humiliation in the last reel. Even the children are complicated, especially little Kuba. And the performances are rich across the board, bringing out the layers in the characters.
The appearance of the picture is subtly effective as well, with Jan Malir’s cinematography effortlessly moving from the grunge of Prague’s ruined slums to the luminous landscape of the Italian countryside. All the other technical contributions are solid, and Ales Brezina’s score is suitably low-key.
The title, incidentally, is taken from the first lines of a poem by Robert Graves that was used for the lyric of a Czech pop song: “Beauty in trouble flees to the good angel on whom she can rely.” But what sets Hrebejk’s fine film apart is that ultimately there are no angels in it, or devils either—merely genuine, compelling human beings.