Writing about the Northwest Film Center’s annual New Czech Cinema series, the temptation is always there to resort to groan-inducing puns. “Czech these movies out.” “Cash these Czechs.” That sort of thing. But only a reviewer desperate for some pizzazz in their prose would do such a thing. Right?
This is usually one of the more enjoyable recurring programs on the Film Center’s calendar, and this year’s crop of five films is no exception. The opening night selection, “Home Care,” (Friday, May 6) played during February’s Portland International Film Festival. It’s about a nurse in a small Czech town who travels the countryside to care for her patients. When she ends up on the other side of the health care equation, it proves to be a challenge both for her and for her hapless, schnapps-loving husband. What could have been a sappy, manipulative melodrama is, in the hands of first-time director Slávek Horák, a grounded, poignant, and occasionally very funny film.
My favorite film in the series is the droll, almost absurdist comedy “Schmitke” (Saturday, May 7). In it, a German engineer who works for an energy firm is dispatched to a small, fog-shrouded Czech village to repair a creaking windmill. He’s accompanied by an immature, fairly inept co-worker, who before long disappears, leading Schmitke on an increasingly enigmatic quest to track him down. Hints of David Lynch and even “The Shining” meld with broad character-based humor to create something unique and oddly moving.
The most astonishing discovery in “New Czech Cinema,” however, isn’t even new. It’s a stunningly restored edition of the eye-popping 1958 fantasy “The Fabulous World of Jules Verne” (Sunday, May 8). Director Karel Zeman, who made several other films based on Verne’s works, combines live-action actors with animated and two-dimensional backdrops done in a style that marvelously evoke Victorian-era line engravings. The result, with its bizarre plot about a scientist kidnapped by pirates, feels like a book come to life in a way few other films have managed. To see this on a big screen is a rare treat that should not be passed up.
The other two titles on the Czech list (sorry!) are more dramatic and generic fare. “The Way Out” (Friday, May 13, 8 pm) is a social realist drama focusing on the plight of a Roma family trying to make ends meet in a culture where unemployment and racism are rampant. The heroic mother of a baby daughter tries to make a life for herself, her teenaged sister, and her straying husband. She’s tempted towards crime when her older sister, a prostitute, reveals that one of her clients is a wealthy anti-Roma politician. The film is well-acted, and certainly well-intentioned, but also well-worn.
In the same vein, “Gangster Ka” (Saturday, May 14) wears its influences on its sleeve, telling a story of crime and corruption. A well-connected mobster who’s gotten rich through tax dodges and kickbacks goes off the deep end after his father is kidnapped and killed by a competing crime boss.
(“New Czech Cinema” runs from May 6-14 at the Northwest Film Center. Screenings are at 7 pm except where noted. See www.nwfilm.org for a complete schedule.)