Directed by Olmo Omerzu. Starring Karel Roden, Vanda Hybnerová, Jenovéfa Boková, Daniel Kadlec, Martin Pechlát, Eliška Křenková. Written by Olmo Omerzu, Nebojša Pop-Tasić.
A border collie deserted on a Pacific island takes center stage towards the end of the new Czech co-production Rodinný film (Family Film), a slow-paced, drawn-out family melodrama that gets a huge boost from the canine adventure story in its final third.
For around 20 minutes, the movie turns into Cast Away with a border collie, and these scenes not only alleviate the general malaise of the rest of the film but also elevate and enrich its core themes.
During these scenes, the poor dog, named Otto and “played” by multiple canine actors, seems to genuinely scrounge for food and delicately traverse prickly terrain. One almost unbearable long tracking shot captures Otto weaving his way through a swamp of thorny branches.
At other times, Otto stares into the sea and lets out a series of yelps, or tries to swim his way through powerful waves. Note to animal lovers: these scenes are not easy to watch.
Leonardo DiCaprio will win an Oscar this Sunday for surviving the difficult shoot of The Revenant, but I felt even more sympathy for Otto (or rather, the dogs behind the performance), who seems to be going through a similar experience throughout Rodinný film. Just like Leo, the collie is seen eating raw fish at one point – but Otto chomps down on the whole sand-covered animal, bones and all.
The scenes with Otto are so affecting that even though the movie hasn’t earned them, they hold enormous staying power; long after we’ve forgotten about the family plight at the center of Rodinný film, the dog’s journey still sticks with us.
About the rest of the film: it’s a drab but slickly-produced, well-acted arthouse-standard kind of thing that features few scenes of confrontation but plenty of shots of characters sitting next to each other and staring into the distance.
It’s all about what’s unsaid, in other words, in that kind of read-between-the-lines, what-aren’t-they-saying kind of way. You might go along with it or you might have seen it all before. And it ain’t Antonioni.
To get to the dog on the island, Rodinný film has parents Igor (Karel Roden) and Irena (Vanda Hybnerová) taking a weeks-long yachting vacation throughout the Pacific, bringing their border collie Otto along for the fun.
Back in Prague, fifteen-year-old son Erik (Daniel Kadlec) and older sister Anna (Jenovéfa Boková) are home alone for a few weeks before flying out to join mom and dad for Christmas.
But Erik has been skipping school and getting involved with Anna’s friend Kristýna (Eliška Křenková), who might just be toying with him. When the school principal contacts the sibling’s parents via Skype, Igor’s brother Martin (Martin Pechlá) is called in to help set the teenager straight.
And when Igor and Irena stop contacting their children in the days leading up to the holidays, things begin to take a tragic turn.
While the acting here is first-rate – Roden is particularly good as the sadsack husband unable to cope with the situation he finds himself in – none of these self-involved characters present a good case for us investing in their relative storylines. Especially when there’s that poor dog lost at sea thousands of miles away.
Lone exception: Anna, who seems genuinely concerned about both her parents and brother. And young actress Boková has a appealing, cute-as-a-button Zooey Deschanel kind of thing going on. Unfortunately, the script gives her nothing to do besides react to the other characters, and she’s essentially written out of the movie during its final act.
Rodinný film was directed and co-written by Olmo Omerzu, a Slovenian-born director who studied at FAMU in Prague and previously made Příliš mladá noc, a much less-polished but generally more pulled-together movie. There and here, he treads some well-worn terrain in the landscape of Czech cinema with an offbeat, and welcome, perspective.
Make no mistake: Rodinný film is a slog without the Otto scenes, which make up a relatively small percentage of the movie as a whole. And you wouldn’t be wrong to call the movie shameless or manipulative or even exploitative for incorporating them at all.
But even separated from the context of the rest of the movie, Otto’s story has a raw power that will get to you. His scenes alone make up for the rest of the film, and make this a movie worth watching.
You can currently catch Rodinný film with English subtitles in Prague at Cinema City Slovanský dům and Kino Světozor.