The mordant humor of the Czech New Wave is alive and well in Beauty in Trouble, where the absurdities of living under the dictates of a Communist regime are replaced by grand natural disasters and petty human tyrannies. Director Jan Hrebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky (Up and Down) aren't as interested in locating heroes and villains in a post-Velvet Revolution Czech Republic as much as showing how both these characteristics crop up in ordinary citizens dealing with large-scale forces as well as the ramifications of their own decisions.
Several years after the 2002 flood that devastated Prague, Marcela (Ana Geislerova) and her family are still sorting through the rubble. With no insurance, their ramshackle house is in disrepair and full of mold, while her mechanic husband Jarda (Roman Luknar) has turned the adjacent garage into a chop shop for stolen cars. Fed up with her circumstances, Marcela decides to leave Jarda, but not before some volcanic, hair-pulling sex that leaves their embarrassed kids covering their ears in the next room.
Cramped into an apartment with her passive mother Zdena (Jana Brejchova) and loathsome stepfather Risa (Jiri Schmitzer), Marcela doesn't notice the distrust and resentment building in her children; she's too busy reliving the upheavals of her own adolescent psychodrama. Meanwhile, Benes (Josef Abrham) also finds himself in the midst of an awkward homecoming. An émigré who lives in Italy, he's received his Prague family home in a court settlement, only to find the current occupant is caring for her dying mother.
Marcela meets the kindly man who'll become her benefactor when Jarda is arrested for stealing Benes' Volvo, and Beauty in Trouble becomes a fable of the cultured, prosperous West rescuing the downtrodden, ignorant former satellites of the Soviet Union. It's romance with a ruthless undercurrent — passion and uncertainty versus compassion and security — and the filmmakers use music from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (Once) and sharply observant Czech chanteuse Raduza to play up the contradictions.
As much as Hrebejk and Jarchovsky focus on Marcela's choice of men and the lives they offer, they underplay the film's richest character: the beneficent Benes, silver-haired, soft-spoken, and generous to a fault. He reads Milan Kundera in Italian and treasures in his Tuscan vineyard and villa, yet isn't above buying some of what he lost when his family fled Czechoslovakia. This Prince Charming engenders unconditional trust, but has an agenda like everyone else.
Opens Friday, Dec. 12 at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.