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THE OWNERS / VLASTNICI (Czechia)
July 15, 2023 @ 10:00 am to approx. 12:00 pm
Written and directed by Jiří Havelka, based on his own award-winning stage play, Vlastníci presents us with a curious cast of characters, all of whom own apartments in the same block somewhere in Prague, and charts their progress as they attempt to tolerate each others’ presence long enough to take some important decisions about the building’s future. The film took home three Czech Lions and two Czech Film Critics’ Awards, and with fine performances from the leading cast, sharp dialogue, and painfully relevant political overtones, it’s not difficult to see why.
The action all takes place in one room, recalling Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men – and these owners are certainly angry. Over the course of the film, the tension that hangs close around the earliest scenes is released explosively, as slight disagreements turn into raging arguments, and no stone in any of the owners’ lives is left unturned as they seek to blame and criticize each other for sins past and present, real and perceived. And like in Lumet’s film, the fact that the characters can’t escape means that neither can the viewer. We are forced to live through the conflict along with the owners, sharing their frustrations, their fury, and their offence (and it is very offensive at points)…
All this leaves space for some exceptional acting performances; Tereza Voříšková won and richly deserved both the Czech Lion and Critics’ Award for Best Actress, in the role of the desperate and harried chair of the meeting, and Jiří Lábus is satisfyingly authentic as the grumpy old naysayer, recognizable from the end of the bar in any village pub in the Republic.
It’s billed as a comedy, and it is certainly funny; the recurring punchlines, circular dialogue, and comical awkwardness fit naturally into the Czech surrealist theatre tradition. The choice of setting is also inspired, as any apartment owner across the country will presumably recognize the tedious bureaucracy of these legally-mandated meetings. And both of these elements were evident in the cinema when I saw it, the laughter not only of those who were amused but those who could relate.
Yet, as will no doubt be familiar to anyone who has seen their share of Czech “comedies”, there is something deeper going on here. Beneath the dry wit and jaded, world-weary cynicism, and even before we reach the obligatory bittersweet, tragicomic ending, there is some profound allegory at work in Vlastníci, familiar from the brave and subversive Czech comedies of the 1960s, by which, with a choice phrase here, a verbal nod-and-a-wink there, Havelka holds a mirror up to Czech society… and doesn’t reflect its best side.
Run time: 96 min
Country: Czech Republic, Slovakia
Language: Czech with English subtitles
Director: Jiří Havelka
Principal Cast: Krystof Hadek, Stanislav Majer, Andrej Polak, Vojtech Kotek
Distributor: Big World Pictures