If you take "My Sweet Little Village" (at the Beverly Cineplex and Westside Pavilion) at its simplest level, it is a splendidly performed bucolic comedy set in an almost fairy-tale Czech village today, with touches of Tati-like physical humor and a fat-and-lean comedy pair like Laurel and Hardy.
It's possible to accept the film at that level, and even to believe, wide-eyed, its director Jiri Menzel's quoted description of its message, "that people should be decent to each other." (Menzel's first feature, the great tragicomedy "Closely Watched Trains," was the foreign-language film winner at the 1967 Academy Awards.)
There also may be other forces working, shafts of irony, depths of melancholy for a way of life lost in August, 1968, with the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. If so, you could hardly expect Menzel, one of those who chose to remain in Prague, to comment on them publicly.
Central to the village, and the movie, is the pouch-eyed, philosophical doctor (Rudolf Hrusinsky), an accident waiting to happen the minute he gets behind the wheel of a car, which is daily. As he drives, he delivers great chunks of poetry, the verses of songs in praise of his homeland and its beauties. And as he recites, his car weaves rhythmically.
A pair of truckers, the lanky, simple Otik (Janos Ban) and his boss, the stubby, cantankerous Pavek (Marian Labuda), are the two who invariably rescue him. Rounding out the village cast are a luscious schoolteacher and her smitten student; a quorum of village gossips; a husband/wife/and lover and a dashing, visiting painter. Not a party official in sight.
What tension there is comes after Otik becomes heir to his elderly parents' cottage. As in Menzel's earlier lovely comedy, "Seclusion Near a Forest," the yuppies of Prague still yearn for a little country place to get away from it all, and will go to any lengths to get title to one. (In "My Sweet Little Village" you can't tell the Praguers from the Westwood Villagers in their sweats and running shoes.)
Enter the bureaucrats, with their eyes on Otik's "charming cottage." Will the country way of life survive? Will the doctor patch up hearts as deftly as would-be suicides? But, most importantly, will the officious Pavek accept the puppylike Otik back from the sterile big city, to complicate his life yet again?
Didn't we say this was something of a Czech fairy tale?
But, if you wish, there are a few more things to be noticed. For one, actor Hrusinsky was one of those initially banned in the wake of '68. His presence has a meaning to the Czechs. There is quiet irony as the doctor recites songs about rural beauty and the camera looks at roadside litter and refuse dumps. It may recall recent stories charging that indiscriminate industrialization has ruined the country's air and landscape.
"This is not a country, it's a garden," one of the villagers exclaims fervently. "You must have heart to feel it." And under the gentle, deftly played comedy, we can clearly see Menzel's heart, which feels everything.