Spring in his Step

Age need not kill whimsy, says this Czech mate

When we first see Fanda, the craggy, octogenarian hero of a sublime Czech tragicomedy called Autumn Spring, he alights from a sleek black limousine under a rich canopy of trees and begins looking at a luxurious country mansion with obvious distaste. "Quite shabby," he says to the obsequious sales agent at his side. The place is simply not fit lodging for a maestro emeritus of the Metropolitan Opera. No, this will not do. Just behind the old man's mask of disdain, we see a glint of mischief in his eyes.

Thus do we enter the glorious fantasy world of one Fanda Hána, played by the late, great Czech actor Vlastimil Brodsky. We soon learn that Fanda is not a former operatic luminary, not by a long shot. Nor is he, as he later claims, an intrepid ex-mountain climber who once conquered Mount Everest and Mont Blanc. He isn't even a stern ticket inspector for the Prague subway system, despite convincing three pretty girls who've failed to pay their fares to peck him and a friend on the cheek. Truth is, Fanda is a quarrelsome retiree living on a shoestring with his disapproving wife of 44 years, Emílie (Stella Zázvorková), in a cramped suburban apartment.

"Stop playing the fool and take life seriously," Emílie scolds. But despite his several infirmities, Fanda refuses to go gentle into that good night. While his practical wife grimly plans their respective funerals, he plays on. In league with his lifelong friend and unindicted co-conspirator, Eda Stara (Stanislav Zindulka), Fanda boldly crashes weddings and blows his measly pension checks on expensive restaurants and bottles of champagne for his grandchildren. He studies old maps and dreams of circling the globe in a hot-air balloon. To his wife and children, he's a delusional self-dramatist--the Eastern European Walter Mitty. But we quickly see him in another, more generous light. With a brave heart, Fanda fights the inevitable the only way a discarded old man of the theater can do it--by constantly inventing new roles for himself, by using his still-vivid imagination to wrest dignity and joy from the final days of life, consequences be damned.

The bittersweet charm of this extraordinary film is trumped only by its wisdom. Without resorting to schmaltz or sticky pathos, director Vladimír Michálek (a child of 49) fashions an allegory about aging, friendship and love that equals (and often surpasses) the best American movies on those tricky subjects, from Cocoon to On Golden Pond. Michálek's silvery cast is in every respect impeccable--as befits a trio of actors who have, among them, 125 years before the cameras--while the custom-made screenplay, by 74-year-old Jirí Hubac, is absolutely tone-perfect, even for audiences who don't speak Czech. For six months in 2001, Hubac collaborated with leading man Brodsky, the most honored actor in Czech film history, mining Brodsky's life for telling incidents and revelatory insights, then writing a largely biographical story that reflected the actor's half-century onstage and in films. The result is a perfectly conceived marriage of actor and material in a comedy that's lit by sunset and inflected with wry authenticity.

For the beleaguered Fanda, no fiction is too outlandish in his battles against conformity and resignation. He lies to the florist that the bouquet he's buying is for the French ambassador's wife. He gaily presses on with a quixotic plan to sweep his wife away to Egypt. He smokes killer cigarettes with abandon, plots more mansion-hunting and indignantly complains to the parking attendant that his brand-new yellow car has just been stolen from the premises--with his exotic parrot inside. So powerful are the instincts of the actor who must never let his inner child die that he's even capable of faking his own death.

Can Fanda's bright delusions survive harsh reality? That's the question of the hour--to be answered, all in good time, by his beloved friend Eda, his fed-up wife, Emílie, his bewildered son Jára (Ondrej Vetchy) and himself. Fanda's eccentricities nourish his vitality, but his incessant pranks have drained the savings accounts and put his wife to rout. Painted into a corner, Fanda needs plenty of good will from director and writer, and a domestic miracle or two, to find the peace on earth he seeks.

Ironically, Vlastimil Brodsky faced the same kind of challenges off-screen. His storied career reached all the way back to the great films of the Prague Spring--he starred in Closely Watched Trains in 1966 and Capricious Summer in 1968, just before columns of Russian tanks put an end to the dream of Czech autonomy--but by the time Brodsky made Autumn Spring he had already suffered a debilitating stroke, and in May 2002, he took his own life at age 81, before the release of what would be his last film. It's difficult to imagine a more fitting epitaph to his great career than this brilliant affirmation of life lived with courage and spiced with comic flair.

 
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