Written and directed by Zdeněk Jiráský. Starring Vladimír Javorský, Malgorzata Pikus, Marika Šoposká, Josef Láska, Kateřina Jandáčková, Thi Minh Nguyen, Natálie Řehořová, Aneta Krejčíková, Dana Syslová, Jiří Maryško, Luboš Veselý, Miroslav Hanuš, Edgar Dutka, Vladimír Polívka, Otmar Brancuzský, Karel Zima, Michaela Koliandrová, Olivie Žižková, Jiří Král, Natalia Veselá.
Note: this week’s (August 23) theatrical releases are 7 Days in Havana (showtimes | IMDb), an anthology film set in Havana, screening in Spanish & English with Czech subtitles, and Svatá čtveřice (The Holy Quaternity; showtimes), the latest film from director Jan Hřebejk (Musíme si pomáhat, Kráska v nesnázích) and writer Michal Viewegh (Román pro ženy), which is screening in Czech.
A blisteringly realistic portrayal of small town panelák life in Northern Bohemia, Poupata (Flower Buds in English) is one of the most depressing Christmas-themed movies you’re ever likely to see. It’s also a startling portrayal of contemporary life in small-town Bohemia that, despite some script weaknesses, will stay with you long after the film has finished.
In a surprise victory, the (relatively) low-budget Poupata won the Czech Lion award for Best Picture at this year’s Czech Lion Awards, celebrating the best Czech films of 2011. It also scored wins for Best Director (Zdeněk Jiráský, who also wrote the screenplay), Best Actor (Vladimír Javorský), and Best Cinematography (Vladimír Smutný).
Poupata’s strongest aspect is its locale, a microcosm of the modern-day Czech Republic; the name of the setting is never specifically mentioned, but Nové Sedlo (in the Karlovy Vary region) can be glimpsed on a sign at the train station. This may have just been the shooting location, however; from some of the story details, I’d guess the film is supposed to take place closer to the German border.
The film focuses on a family of four, who each have their own storylines. Father Jarda (Jiráský) is in a downward spiral, racking up debts across town and blowing all his money on the slot machine at the local bar. Son Honza (Josef Láska) has fallen in love with stripper Zuzana (Aneta Krejčíková), and wants to ‘save’ her from her current profession. Daughter Agáta (Marika Šoposká) is pregnant; the father of the child is hospitalized in critical condition after a long night out during Mikuláš.
Mother Kamila (Malgorzata Pikus) is struggling to manage her family, and also adjusting to her current position in life; a memorable scene features her fitness group ousted from the local hall by a group of strippers and hollering men who have rented it out for the night.
The mother’s storyline is subtly and effectively handled; the same cannot be said for the rest of the plot threads, which are ham-fisted and obvious, beating the audience over the head with gloom. The best example of this is the storyline between Jarda and his Vietnamese neighbor, which has such obvious setup-payoff plotting that the film’s big emotional climax (complete with literal fireworks) becomes something of a groaner.
Despite the issues I took with the writing, Poupata is a stark and depressingly realistic portrayal of life in the Czech Republic that will stay with you. Cinematography by Smutný (Kolja, Dark Blue World) perfectly captures the small town atmosphere.
The excellent soundtrack features an original score by Martin Přikryl (working on his first feature) that perfectly matches the tone; the retro-electro pieces that accompany the striptease sequences are a particular standout. Přikryl was nominated for a Czech Lion (and should have won) but lost out to Alois Nebel’s Petr Kružík and Ondřej Ježek.
Note on the title: Poupata (which translates as Flower Buds) was a composition by Michal David used for Spartakiáda (a mass physical exercise that took place in Prague’s Strahov stadium and was televised nationwide) in the 1980s. As seen in the film, the event continues today, albeit on a smaller scale; Poupata contrasts this once-massive communist tradition with modern-day life in the Czech Republic. Poupata also refers to the girls participating in Spartakiáda, who are ‘blossoming’ into women.
2011 was a relatively weak year in Czech film, and surprise Czech Lion-winner Poupata isn’t really a standout (unlike the terrific Pouta a couple years ago); the animated drama Alois Nebel or Odcházení, ex-president Václav Havel’s final film, might have been better selections. Still, while the plotting lets the film down, Poupata offers an exceptional view of contemporary life in the Czech Republic that won’t be easily forgotten.
Image Quality: 7/10
Image quality on the region-free PAL DVD is generally acceptable, if extremely grainy; part of this could be due to the film stock used in the (relatively) low-budget production, but may annoy some viewers nonetheless.
Poupata’s 1.85:1 image is letterboxed into an anamorphic 16:9 frame.
Sound Quality: 9/10
Audio quality fares quite a bit better than the image, with the 5.1 Dolby Surround mix well reproduced, making good use of the surround speakers. Přikryl’s score sounds great, and never dominates the dialogue.
Subtitles are offered in English and Czech for the hearing impaired; some of the English subs are intentionally (I believe) rough to showcase the broken Czech used by some of the characters.
Bonus Features: 3/10
• A short Making Of (7:02), in Czech without subtitles.
• A Photo Gallery (0:46) showcases some stills from the film, set to Přikryl’s soundtrack
No issues with the DVD presentation, and Poupata is well worth viewing for an insight into life in the contemporary Czech Republic. For local residents, however, the depressing film might hit too close to home.
Screengrabs (click to view full resolution):