There is a joke that several nationalities in CE Europe tell about themselves, and into which almost any national group can be inserted: ‘How many Czechs does it take to change a light-bulb? Four: one to hold the bulb up to the fitting and the others to haul him back from installing it.’ This joke’s idea runs in a seam through Jan Prusinovský’s award-winning film The Snake Brothers (2015), starring real life brothers Kryštof and Matěj Hádek, and set in a small provincial town.
Cobra (Matěj Hádek) is a local menace. Purple-haired and combat jacketed, he roams the streets looking for houses to rob, snipping through the locks and chains with a huge pair of wire-cutters he wears on his back like a bow-and-arrow: a Robin Hood stealing from the not-much-richer to feed his drug habit. A figure wearily well-known to the local police, he’s protected by his older brother Viper (Kryštof Hádek), a drunk and serial sack-ee whose life is not much better.
But things are looking up for Viper: the local Alpha male – a shabby big fish in the pettiest of ponds – has offered him a franchise on a clothing shop, and Viper’s grandmother has offered to put up her house as collateral. Our sense of doom at this arrangement seems initially misplaced: Viper works hard and the shop thrives. It’s only when his feckless brother steals the new plasma-TV Viper has bought his grandmother as a thank you present, and goes off to celebrate with his brother’s best-friend’s-wife Zůza, that things start to unravel, and Viper’s newly acquired stability looks terminally threatened. The stage is set for a disaster that will drag others into its slipstream and is painful – if at certain moments funny – to watch.
No one, it seems is harder on the Czechs than the Czechs themselves, and the picture this gives of the modern Republic is bleak in the extreme. Local life (and national life, by implication) is a food chain, everyone trying to exploit and double-cross everyone else. At one point we see Cobra newly flush with the money for some stolen goods and visiting a bar: a local instantly tries to prise some of it away, guaranteeing (unconvincingly) to pay him back. Masculinity is in crisis, alcoholism and theft are rampant, and adultery and domestic violence get a good look-in too. Only the grandparents – exploited themselves – come well out of The Snake Brothers, and their goodness may well be simple naivete. Solutions are found at the end of the film, but they are drastic and hardly optimistic about the nation’s underclass and the moral compromises necessary to survive (or sometimes) prosper in modern Czech life.
What saves the film – indeed, makes it highly deserving of a wider release – are several things. A vein of warm humour and eccentricity runs throughout – totally Czech. A running joke about budgies has echoes of Hrabal, and there’s a reference too to the Firemans’ Ball, Miloš Forman’s 1967 comedy about provincial town-life, which brings home the descent in standards in the last 50 years. The Snake Brothers is nearly always believable too – one imagines this kind of drama happening in every small town as we speak, from Košice to Colchester, and though Prusinovský could be accused of flirting with stock characters – the provincial, scabrously married floozie, the overweight local barmaid with a heart of tarnished gold – all of them (bar the barmaid) are fleshed out and interesting enough to seem new-minted.
Nor does the acting put a foot wrong: every part is convincingly played, but special mention should go to Lucie Žáčková, whose performance as the mutinously promiscuous Zůza is always humane and compelling, and to Kryštof Hádek, whose Viper – a study in anxiety, bewilderment and guilt – is a fitting symbol for the disorientations of modern beta maledom anywhere, Czech or otherwise. Hádek won Best Actor at the Karlovy Vary film festival for his work here: it’s hard to argue with that.
Ken Loach – our own master of this kind of drama – has always paid lip-service to the directors of the Czech New Wave, and the important effect they had on his work. It would seem from The Snake Brothers that the influence, over time, has started to move in both directions. For an example of how well the Czechs mix up their own, distinct version of a familiar cocktail, one couldn’t start with a much better film than this.
The Snake Brothers + Q&A with director Jan Prusinovský can be seen on Saturday 26 November (20:00) at the Regent St Cinema, as part of the Made in Prague Festival 2016, organised by the Czech Centre, London.