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Review: Up and Down

The film labors to unearth the comic foibles in a pair of immigrant smugglers’ miserable existence.

Up and Down
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a dinner table scene halfway through the Czech ensemble Up and Down that starts off a spectacle of sap archetypes—the terminal old professor, his estranged wife, his bejeweled mistress, and their respective grown kids—but then sublimely decomposes into a sustained, real-time domestic quarrel where the silence in between outbursts makes up the subtext. The bitter, bereft wife (a heartbreaking Emilia Vasaryova) will not agree to a divorce, and she explains so vis-à-vis an alternately aloof and malicious attack on Czech immigration—xenophobia masquerading for the odium she feels at having been intruded upon, first by communists, then another woman. It’s the one passage in the film where director Jan Hrebejk, in his contemporary follow-up to the sharp, magical-realist satire Divided We Fall, achieves the sense of obscurity and pathos inherent in any honest treatise on miscegenation. The scene ends perhaps before it should, with the wife storming out (“a senile whim” is how she perversely excuses her bile), but the decay of these lives we’ve been shown is tangible and consequential, which is more than can be said of the various other clowns who cling to Hrebejk’s overextended latticework. The narrative’s main trajectory focuses on a pair of immigrant smugglers who peddle a left-behind infant to a drop-dead-ugly couple that can’t conceive or adopt. Aside from being a retread of the plot in Divided We Fall, these scenes are played so broadly as to be mocking. There’s a labored emphasis on unearthing the comic foibles in their miserable existence. By the time a wholesome Burmese couple thwart their own mugging by karate chopping the racist thugs, it’s abundantly clear that Hrebejk and co-writer Petr Jarchovsky would prefer goofing around to serious analysis. (The WWII-era Divided We Fall integrated moments of slapstick as well, but the context here is too immediate for such buffoonery to be pulled off.) For an infinitely more powerful and challenging movie on cultural assimilation, check out Michael Haneke’s staggering Code Unknown, which gains new relevance (and new admirers) with each passing year. Hrebejk admits that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic were his major inspirations, not only in terms of the multi-layered plot but also the aesthetic scheme. And there’s irony there: the handheld camera and oversaturated color hues, contrary to what Hrebejk’s intended, illustrate his unfamiliarity with this modern world.

Cast: Emilia Vasaryova, Petr Forman, Natasa Burger, Jan Triska, Ingrid Timkova, Pavel Liska, Jiri Machacek, Jan Budar, Zdenek Suchy, Kristyna Liska-Bokova, Marek Daniel Director: Jan Hrebejk Screenwriter: Petr Jarchovsky, Jan Hrebejk Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2004 Buy: Video

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