My Sweet Little Village (Vesnicko má stredisková)

Czechoslovakia (1985) Dir. Jirí Menzel

It’s fair to say that the humour of central European countries is rather esoteric and very much an acquired taste to the point of being mostly arcane for the rest of us. Topping that list must be Czechoslovakia aka Czech Republic, noted for their surreal approach to even the most safest of genres, courtesy of such inventive but idiosyncratic luminaries as Jan Svankmajer.

But not everything from this region is so bafflingly obtuse, though some habits do seem to die hard. The setting for My Sweet Little Village is a small close knit rural community where most of the people are happy to be hidebound to their rustic roots. The de facto protagonist is Otík Rabosnik (János Bán), a lanky simpleton orphan and designated village idiot who works as the mate for builder Pávek (Marián Labuda).

As earnest as Otík is, his general incompetence causes a huge rift between him and Pávek, and after causing him to drive his truck into a concrete post, Pávek decides to hand Otík over to the dyspeptic colleague Turek (Petr Cepek) once the harvest is over. The thought of working with Turek fills him with dread, so Otík accepts an offer to move to Prague instead.

My Sweet Little Village has been voted the most popular Czech comedy in history and was nominated for an Oscar, and whilst there some amusing moments in it, not all the jokes travel so well. This might partly be down to the above mentioned unique flavour of Czech comedy and this film being over 30 years old, therefore containing a possible satirical bent to some of the gags that won’t work without an explicit reference point.

Generally, it is a breezy slice-of-life opus that relies on the Laurel and Hardy influenced chemistry of Otík and Pávek, the latter’s incredulous slow burn reaction is very much from the Oliver Hardy playbook. That said, Pávek’s short, stubby, rotund bulk and Otík’s towering wiry frame is more R2-D2 and C-3PO or even Mario and Luigi if anything but it still works a charm.

With Otík being orphaned so young, Pávek and his family, as well as other villagers, have looked after Otík, thus the father-son bond that he feels with Pávek which doesn’t appear to be reciprocated, but you know deep down inside the exasperated older man is a flicker of an affectionate flame just waiting to be stoked. Even if this means the story ends on a predictable feel good note, the characters are set up in a way that practically demands on and nobody will complain.

Yet there are 98 minutes to fill and being a small village means there are more than one or two interesting denizens to meet. Turek is a suspicious and hot headed alpha male type prone to picking on the weak, which explains why his wife Jana (Libuse Safránková) is having an affair with city vet Václav Kaspar (Jan Hartl). They use Otík’s house as their love nest behind his back, employing subterfuge to make sure he is out for the duration.

Meanwhile, Pávek’s teenage son Jarda (Stanislav Aubrecht) is trying to woo his sister’s pretty teacher but loses out to an older travelling artist, whilst local GP Dr. Skruzný (Rudolf Hrusínský) is able to solve every problem of his patients yet can’t drive his car more than a few yards without crashing into something in a recurring gag. Add to this the usual collection of elderly busybodies and self-important professionals and we have a town that is certainly not short on vibrant personalities.

Superficially this reads as your average tale of a country bumpkin community embroiled in a series of comic episodes that ultimately strengthens their bonds instead of breaking them, but scratch beneath the surface, as alluded to earlier, and it would seem there is a commentary regarding the then ailing communist control over Czechoslovakia. This is likely more obvious to anyone with a better grasp on the country’s political history but not essential for the clueless (hello!) in making the film any more or less enjoyable.

Where it might stand out the most is when Otík visits his new apartment in Prague, his guide promising him the latest domestic luxuries and feature, like a shower that doesn’t work, cupboards with broken shelves and a window view of a construction site. At least he had running water back home in his village and verdant landscape for his outdoors vista –  and he wasn’t alone.

Remarkably for someone who doesn’t say much, or really do that much, Otík becomes an interesting focal point around which each of the various stories revolve and are built on, in more ways than one. Is it that Otík needs the villagers more than they need him or the other way around? The answer may not be so clear come the conclusion but it is designed to  feel like the right one where lessons are – mostly – learned.

Yet, once the end credits we feel we have spent an eventful but invigorating holiday of our own in a rural province, which is as much as due to the engaging and very real cast of colourful characters as the picturesque surroundings, resplendent in their quaint, bucolic glory as captured by the busy camera of Jaromír Šofr, under Jirí Menzel’s cheeky but respectful direction.

János Bán creates a proto-Forrest Gump like character in Otík, tall, gawky, easily led yet happy in his own world. He may be more idiot than savant but his heart is right where it should be, his only crime is not be able to express himself. Maybe Pávek could be more sympathetic towards Otík, something Marián Labuda quietly allows to surface in Pávek without it being a contrived sudden 180° turn and thankfully so as his choleric reactions are a hoot.

My Sweet Little Village is amusing enough to pass the time, feeling like relaxing stroll through a country village that time forgot (even by 1985’s standards).