Culture | Film & Theatre

CZECH100 Made in Prague PREVIEW: ‘Barefoot’ (Svěrák, 2017) – ‘child’s story in midst of a war that changed the course of history

Rating:

31/10/2018

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Wartime, circa 1943. Young Eda (Alois Grec) and his family live in an apartment block in Prague. From the window, Eda can see the barracks of Nazi soldiers occupying Prague. In the backyard, people from the house play volleyball in the afternoons. Eda’s father (Ondřej Vetchý) secretly listens to resistance radio programmes and refuses to comply to the mandatory Nazi salute at work. For the latter, he and his family are expulsed from their flat. They move back to the countryside to live with his parents and siblings. For Eda, the ‘Prážak’, country life’s a change, but he soon makes friends with a group of boys. Literally taking off his city shoes, he becomes a barefooted country boy, who helps his grandfather picking apples, looks after the geese, and spends much of his spare time hiding in a heap of old funeral wreaths together with his ‘gang’.

film-8149The country idyll is still an idyll at war. We notice that some food items are scarce: Eda’s prepped to steal sugar from the factory his father works in, for example, and the family makes honey in exchange for butter. Still, country life’s a far cry from the destructive, murderous events that happen elsewhere. One might think it was lucky that Eda’s father lost his job in the city – his family’s much better off at history’s fringes. There, Eda plays safely, and his father continues his silent resistance, away from the tight grip the National Socialists held elsewhere. But the family harbours a dark secret: the ‘Wolf’, Eda’s uncle played by Oldřich Kaiser, has been cut off from the family for trying to strangle his own mother. He lives a life of solitude, and Eda’s forbidden to talk to him. Soon, he does so anyway, realising that the big, bad wolf isn’t a monster, but a hardworking and kind man. So, what happened? As the story slowly unravels, we find out that things aren’t quite as they seem…

vlk_The Second World War happens somewhere in the background. We see it through the villagers’ eyes, from a distance. The boys talk of war, and when one of them marches along with Nazi soldiers, they expel him from their gang for treason. He’s ‘a stupid Czech’, they find. Patriotism rules even among the young. From the moment that Eda waves the Czech flag at the Nazi soldiers from his Prague living room, to the point where his father proudly presents his beehives, painted red, blue and white (the colours of the Czech flag), love for the occupied home country’s weaved into the film’s story. Yet it doesn’t always sit comfortably. When expulsed Germans pass the town, even the children refuse to give them water. The only one helping them is the Wolf. He’s the only one in the family to join the resistance in the final days of war, too – until the Russian liberators arrive. Back in safety, Eda and his family move back to Prague to an uncertain future…

Winning several Czech Lion awards, Barefoot’s an accoladed and beautifully made film, which continues the fine storytelling of Jan Svěrák’s earlier film successes, like Elementary School (1991), to which it functions as a prequel, Empties (2007), and Kolya (1996). Svěrák’s father Zdeněk’s cooperated, too, and features as Eda’s teacher.

220px-Po_strnisti_bos_PosterBarefoot plays on Svěrák’s idiosyncratic way of dealing with Czech history, always focusing on ‘malý český človek’ – the ‘small Czech man’, who finds himself thrown into history-at-large. Yet despite the intricate storytelling, which interweaves the family’s history with occurrences during WWII and presents some wonderful parallels between the two, it occasionally feels as though the film’s not quite as exciting as it could be. For one, the women’s roles are confined to traditional characterisations as beautiful body and nurturer – a far cry away from the complexity of their male counterparts. Yet there’s also something constrained about the male characters, Eda’s father and especially his paternalistic grandfather, that constantly provokes a sense of unease. It’s as though the film builds on its storyline more than its characters, so that the actions of the characters themselves are led by the story, rather than letting them develop as the story unfolds. Carefully weaved together, Barefoot reminds us of a child’s story – and a child’s story it tells with Eda’s adventures in midst of a war that changed the course of history.

 

Barefoot screens at Regent Street Cinema on 2 November at 8:20pm.

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