Sunday, December 16, 2007

Something Like Happiness


Written & Directed by Bohdan Slama. Monika, Tonik and Dasha grew up together in the same housing project on the outskirts of a small industrial city. Now the childhood friends are adults, each struggling with feelings of desire and loneliness, longing and failure.

While her boyfriend pursues wealth and success in America, Monika waits, ever-hopeful that he will arrange for her to join him. Tonik has fled his stifling conservative family and lives with an eccentric aunt: together they struggle to defend her derelict farmhouse against the encroaching industrial development nearby. Dasha has two small children and a feckless married lover. Fragile, unpredictable, edging ever nearer to the brink of despair, she turns viciously on those closest to her. Though none would admit it, each craves something the other has and it's these unspoken longings which bind them in difficult, complex, passionate friendships.

Dasha's mental state worsens dramatically, and she is committed to an asylum. Afraid that they will be taken into care, Monika looks after her kids. And when Tonik readily offers his support - and his home - she discovers his unspoken love for her. For Tonik himself it's a new beginning, a new chance. But, whatever he tells himself, this game of happy families is only that - a game. Monika is waiting to escape to the Land of Opportunity, the children are only on loan, and there's always another leak in the farmhouse...

By turns poignant, absurd and profoundly moving, beautifully directed and featuring a host of flawless performances, Something Like Happiness is the second feature from award-winning Bohdan Slama, whose Wild Bees was the Czech 2002 Academy Award candidate. Vibrant and deeply affecting, Something Like Happiness is a funny, tender and very human drama of passions and lives half-understood and veering out of control, shadowed by tragedy, shot through with hope.

The two best films I've seen at the New York Film Festival so far have been from Eastern Europe. First there was Romania’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu which, as I detailed earlier, is a work of rare power and generosity. And now comes Something Like a Happiness, a deceptively easy-going film from the Czech Republic that, though its scope is much smaller than that of Mr. Lazarescu, also manages the same magical trick of finding hope in the midst of disappointment.

Something Like Happiness is built around a grim housing block in an unnamed Czech city. The city is dingy and grey, dominated by a nuclear plant that endlessly spews smoke into the sky. It's often terribly cold, and almost everyone is poor. Monika's (Tatiana Vilhelmová) family is the most well-off, able to regularly afford groceries and willing to splurg on a tiny new digital video camera for Christmas. Still, Moni is not privileged. She works in what appears to be the Czech version of Target, and is waiting for her recently-departed boyfriend to send her a ticket so that she can join him in California. Upstairs lives her friend Dasha (Anna Geislerová, who brings some of Katrin Cartlidge's dangerous intensity to her role), a single mother with two sons, a married boyfriend, and a filthy, often foodless apartment. Also in the building are Tonik's (Pavel Liska) parents. Though the ragged Tonik now lives with an aunt in his grandfather’s old house, he grew up with Monika and his constant presence indicates a helpless devotion to her, despite her love of another.

Dasha is quickly revealed to be deeply unstable, to such a degree that her sons are often in danger. She pushes Moni and Tonik away with violence and apparently finality, but they quietly return when she needs them. Despite Moni's father's certitude that no ticket will ever come, Moni finally hears from her boyfriend, who has acquired not just a ticket for her but a job, as well. Elated by the news, Moni is thrilled to leave her dead-end life, despite the family and friends she will be leaving behind. She knows she needs to stop feeling responsible for Dasha, and is equally aware that only physical distance will free her. When Dasha falls apart further and is institutionalized, though, Moni assumes responsibility for her friend’s sons, wordlessly putting her own future on hold.

This unplanned step along takes Moni to the happiest, most magical time in the film. Without discussion or deliberation, she and Tonik become parents to Dasha's boys, and the four of them briefly exist in a fairly tale world where everything makes sense. Tonik's quiet, unacknowledged devotion, Moni's lost life in America, the daily uncertainty of life for boys - all of it makes sense because of this. This moment is where they were all meant to be; where their lives have been leading. Boating on a filthy lake, in the shadows of the nuclear plant, the temporary family is enclosed in a cocoon of remarkable, wonderful warmth and simple, profound rightness.

Inevitably, of course, things change in abrupt, brutal ways. The old house in which the little family had been living decays further and has to be sold. Tonik's beloved aunt falls ill. Dasha recovers, but with disastrous consequences. Tonik takes a job at the hated factory. Moni leaves, and then comes back. Dreams are systematically destroyed, and the nuclear plant continues to pump its grey smoke into the air. It’s all so wrenchingly unfair as to be almost inconceivable, and the disappointment would quite reasonably crush almost anyone. And yet Moni somehow finds the strength to carry on.

As impossible as it may seem, there is a strange kind of optimism to Something Like Happiness. Despite the terrible injustice of her life, Moni remains unbroken. Miraculously, her frequent disappointments don't crush her hope, they just put it off for a while, or move it onto other things. Her approach to life is a very unfamiliar combination of passion and business, but without any coldness or bitterness. Moni is remarkably clear-eyed in her assessment of her world, and perhaps it is that lack of illusion that allows her to take crushing disappointment so much in stride. She plays the hand she’s dealt without wishing for better cards, or a different game. Life is as it is. Period. There is never even a moment of “Why me?”, instead she just goes silently on, accepting but without resignation.

Moni’s attitude is mirrored by that of the film’s director, Bohdan Sláma. Despite its grim setting, the film is strikingly beautiful. Every frame - most of which are shot with a handheld camera - is suffused with a strange luminescence, whether it shows a smokestack, a child, or a housing block. Even the grimmest, most depressing image appears somehow lovely in the lens of Sláma's camera. Furthermore, like his main character, Sláma refuses to dwell on what goes wrong for his characters, preferring instead to show events without judgment, and without forced emotion. The most wrenching scenes in his film take place without any musical accompaniment; it's just the audience and the characters, sharing the experience.

Thinking about Something Like Happiness causes a lump to rise in my throat, but it's hard to explain why, even to myself - suffice to say that this is a film of thrilling complexity and depth. Everything about it is surprising, from the way it looks and feels to the way its characters live their lives. While it is doubtless a very modest picture about very modest lives, Something Like Happiness is also a work of sneaky power and innovation. If Sláma's film and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu are true indications of the quality of filmmaking in Eastern Europe today, there are exciting times ahead.

[Something Like Happiness doesn’t yet have a US distributor, but readers in New York can see it on October 1 at the New York Film Festival. It will also screen on November 1 and 3 as part of the London Film Festival. Visit their websites for details, and keep an eye out for at festivals near you.]

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