'Home Care' ('Domaci pece'): Film Review

Courtesy of Tvorba Film
Tonally problematic but with heartfelt performances.

Czech Republic's Oscar submission in the foreign-language category is a rural comedy-drama directed by Slavek Horak.

A fifty-something rural nurse's familiar round of house calls comes to an abrupt halt after an absurd incident involving frogs in Home Care, the debut feature of Czech writer-director Slavek Horak. Though the story is set in picturesque southern Moravia, Czech Republic’s wine country, the film paints an at times painfully honest portrait of country life in an economically depressed area, laced with dark humor and moments of good cheer. Though not an entirely smooth concoction, especially in terms of its tone, this Czech entry in the foreign-language Oscar derby should nonetheless travel on the strength of its generous lead performance from the great Alena Mihulova (the upcoming Anthropoid with Jamie Dornan).

Vlasta (Mihulova) is a home-care nurse who dutifully makes the rounds of the region around Zlin, always putting her (occasionally rather oddball) patients’ needs before her own. She’s a no-nonsense kind of woman who likens the idea of folkloric remedies such as creams of dog fat or the use of warm hands to "science-fiction Despite working long hours and having to travel from village to village using public transport, she’s also the one keeping the household running at home, where her retired husband Lada (Boleslav Polivka, another Czech acting icon) doesn’t do much more than spend the day in the garage doing odd jobs, most of them for his own pleasure.

Their division of labor and Vlasta’s role as a caregiver are extremely old-fashioned but feel real enough seen the rural setting and the characters’ age. But the familiar rituals of the couple, who’ve been married for 30 years, are upset after an accident involving frogs — which rather incongruously combines a nod to P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia with a critique of senseless EU funding schemes — reveals that Vlasta herself will need looking after.

Horak, who also wrote the screenplay, based the film on some of the experiences of his mother, herself a rural nurse, and his father. The material is also literally close to home, as the home and adjacent vineyard of the director’s parents are used in the film as Vlasta and Lada’s country dwelling (no production designer is credited).

This proximity to the characters and story is something of a doubled-edged sword. On the one hand, Horak offers some wonderful insights into country life and how hard it is to be older or ill, or both, far away from the big city. At the same time, since he knows his characters inside out, he doesn’t have any qualms about exaggerating their characteristics for comic or dramatic effect, such as the obvious contrasts between the tough louts in the country with the smooth Prague fiance of the couple’s emotionally unstable daughter (Sara Venclovska).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film occasionally recalls the bittersweet creations of Jan Sverak, on whose Oscar-winner Kolya the rookie filmmaker was an assistant director, though Sverak’s blends of light and dark are much smoother. Horak isn’t an experienced enough writer-director to avoid either an overly schematic structure or properly handle the constant shifts between observational realism and more stylized broad comedy or melodrama. The end result is an uneven film in which the lead characters are deeply touching — veteran actress Muhilova is an unending reservoir of human warmth, dedication and dignity — but most of the supporting characters are one-note providers of either laughs or drama.

Some subplots in which the leads and supporting characters need to interact extensively, such as when seasoned professional nurse Vlasta suddenly decides to explore alternative medicine and healing, therefore ring false. Her impulse is certainly believable but that she would put up with what the film throws at her isn’t credible for one second, even if it manages to score a few laughs. Horak fares a lot better in comedy that’s rooted in a sense of who the leads are and where they find themselves in life, such as in a hilarious and smartly metaphorical sequence in which Vlasta talks to her daughter on the phone after having fallen into an open grave.

Technically, the film is capably put together, making the most of what must have been a tight budget. Cinematographer Jan Statsny’s final shot is beautifully understated and quietly heartbreaking in its simplicity.

Production companies: Tvorba Films, Ceska Televize, Fog ‘N’ Desire Films, Svoboda & Williams, Sokol Kollar

Cast: Alena Mihulova, Boleslav Polivka, Tatiana Vilhemova, Zuzana Kronerova, Sara Venclovska

Writer-Director: Slavek Horak

Producer: Slavek Horak

Executive producer: Tomas Rotnagl

Director of photography: Jan Statsny

Costume designer: Natalie Steklova

Editor: Vladimir Barak

Casting: Myrka Hyzlkova

Sales: M-Appeal

No rating, 90 minutes

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