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Jan Sverak and Zdenek Sverak, two of the best-known names in Czech cinema, are the son-and-father team whose 1996 film about an unwanted Russian boy, Kolya, won the best foreign-language Academy Award. Though the story of Kolya is vaguely related to the present film, there’s more wistfulness than heart-tugging in Barefoot (Po Strnisti Bos), a beautiful piece of nostalgia shot entirely from a little boy’s perspective, one that never makes a misstep.
Based on pere Zdenek’s autobiographical novel, and directed, written and produced by Jan, it describes the wonder of growing up through the eyes of an alert 8-year-old boy whose city family has been forced into rural exile during World War II. Quickly adapting to country life, Eda (luminously played by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed newcomer Alois Grec) turns from precious Prague boy to larking country lad with a new set of bumpkin pals. An able touch of sardonic East European humor keeps things smart and light, even if real drama is notable by its absence. The Portobello release will be entertaining audiences in Palm Springs soon after its Dubai bow.
It’s worth noting that Barefoot is a bona fide prequel to the director’s 1991 feature debut, The Elementary School, which finds Eda as a 10-year-old attending school in 1945. The Oscar-nominated earlier film also is based on a story and screenplay by the elder Zdenek, who played Eda’s father. This interwoven web of personal memories and characters creates a unique feeling of continuity in these works, for those who are familiar with them.
The film has been compared to John Boorman’s seminal Hope and Glory, set in London during the Blitz, which similarly describes the experience of war from a bold, unfamiliar perspective: through the eyes of innocents. In Barefoot, too, what sticks in the mind is the contrast between the terrible things happening all around Eda and his distance from these portentous events. Unlike the adults around him, he’s too young to understand their import. (The audience has the additional benefit of hindsight, and also knows what the Soviet liberators are bringing in their wake after the war.) Instead of fear, Eda and his friends have exhilarating fun in these extraordinary times, when finding a fuel tank released by an American bomber can turn into a great and profitable adventure.
With the Nazis taking over the country, one waits in vain for a dramatic incident that will turn the children’s happy-go-lucky p.o.v. to tragedy. But this is not that film. The closest the Sveraks’ screenplay comes is a shocking and unexpected scene in Prague, when an elderly neighbor is dragged out of his house by the Gestapo and his faithful dog brutally dispensed with. Eda’s mother (Tereza Voriskova) covers her son’s eyes to erase the trauma.
It’s Eda’s naivete that causes their forced removal to the rustic country home of his father (Ondrej Vetchy) when, in a fit of pique, he reveals that Dad is listening to Resistance broadcasts on the radio. When the Germans requisition their city apartment, his unsinkable parents never bat an eye, packing a truck high with their belongings.
The rest of the film is given to Eda’s big-little adventures, meeting his grandparents and uncles and aunts, making new friends and starting a new school. He brings quite a big-city aura with him, symbolized by an absurd “cross cap” beanie he wears, presumably to keep his hair in place, which leaves the village kids awestruck. Unselfconscious about this comic-book object on his head, young Grec boldly carves out a niche for himself in a band of rough country lads. One of them gets around on a box cart after losing his legs under a tank, yet never does the slightest ounce of self-pity darken his sunny personality.
Eda struggles to understand the resentments that abound in the adult world, especially around his gloomy outcast uncle (Oldrich Kaiser), to whom he is forbidden to speak. Their clandestine friendship culminates in an exhilarating, beautifully filmed horse-drawn cart ride through fields puffy with fresh snow.
Several members of the Kolya tech team, including cinematographer Vladimir Smutny and editor Alois Fisarek, return to craft an idyllic universe of childhood just this side of adult preoccupations and responsibilities. Particularly impressive is the casual integration of Eda’s fantasies in the background of realistic scenes. Michal Novinski’s soundtrack resonates with joy.
Production companies: Biograf Jan Sverak, Novinski, Phoenix Film
Cast: Alois Grec, Tereza Voriskova, Ondrej Vetchy, Oldrich Kaiser, Petra Spalkova, Hynek Cermak, Zdenek Sverak, Viera Pavlikova, Jan Triska, Zdenek Sverak
Director-producer: Jan Sverak
Screenwriters: Jan Sverak, Zdenek Sverak, based on Zdenek Sverak’s book
Director of photography: Vladimir Smutny
Production designer: Jan Vlasak
Music: Michal Novinski
Editor: Alois Fisarek
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Cinema of the World)
Sales: Portobello Film Sales
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