Saturday, July 6, 2013
Signál  [IMDB][CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed by Tomáš Řehořek [IMDb][CSFD]*[FDB]*, screenplay by Marek Epstein [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) which played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of the 2013 Czech That Film Tour (cosponsored by the Czech Rep.'s Diplomatic Mission in the United States and Prague's Staropramen Beer) fills a perhaps inevitable but ever pleasant/entertaining and often insightful spot in any Slavic film festival or tour -- the film about "village life."
On this blog, I've previously reviewed Russian Reserve (orig. Русский заповедник)  (Russia, 2012 Chicago Peace on Earth Film Festival), The House (orig. Dom/Dům)  (Slovakia/C.R. 2012 Chicago European Union Film Festival), The Matchmaking Mayor (orig. Nesvatbov)  (Slovakia/C.R. 2012 Czech Film Tour), Father, Son and Holy Cow (orig. Święta Krowa)  (Poland/Germany, 2012 Chicago Polish Film Festival in America) and if time would have worked out, I would have seen one or two other such films at the 2011 Chicago Polish Film Festival as well...).
Why such a film is perhaps inevitable in any Slavic Film Festival or Tour is because even if most Slavic peoples are primarily urban now, village life remains part and parcel of the Slavic psyche/imagination. "Scratch a Russian and you'll find a peasant." Poland literally means "Land of Fields" Polák literally means "Man/One from the Fields." And across the Slavic world, even if one normally lives in the city, "going to the country" is what one does in the summer, especially on weekends.
But, of course, most people in Slavic lands now live in the city. So those who actually live in the villages year round are often looked-down upon. Both in Poland and in the Czech Republic a country-dweller is often called a "Buran" which means "Hick" with the same pejorative connotations.
So this then forms the background of this comedy called Signál . Two college students, Filoš (played by Vojtěch Dyk [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) a music/voice major and Kája (played by Kryštof Hádek [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) a physics major who at the end of the summer is scheduled to begin graduate studies at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland (Note that I have a distant Czech cousin who's a physicist who finds himself regularly visiting CERN as well) spend their summer traveling around the Czech countryside putting-on a prank: They find villages which still don't have cell-phone service for lack of a signal and then enter said villages impersonating representatives of a cell-phone company looking for sites to put-up cell-phone towers, promising the owners of the land on which the cell phone tower would be built a non-inconsequential annual payment for the use of their land. The villagers eager for some extra income would then house / feed them and perhaps offer them a modest bribe for special consideration.
So the two had spent most of their summer this way, amiably B.S.ing similarly amiable "country folk" happily eating their food, crashing on couches in theirs attics and, yes (since they are young after all...) flirting and occasionally sleeping with their daughters / other womenfolk. Then after spending a week or two walking around (with appropriate "seriousness" ...) the countryside surrounding the village with an electronic gadget that would harken back to the divining rods of dowsers, who in ages past would similarly traverse the countryside identifying auspicious places to dig wells or perhaps even look for mineral deposits (Even as late as the late-1950s my paternal grandfather invited a dowser over to help him find a good place to dig a well), the two would solemnly declare to a town meeting of the village in question that they had taken their measurements, that they would now report their back to their headquarters where the final decision as to the location of the new cell tower would be made , and then they ... skip town ;-)
Now why would the two have the time or desire to put on such a scam? Well higher-education in the C.R. as across most of Europe remains generally merit based. That is, so long a student is accepted into a university program and maintains a requisite grade-point average, the education given is paid-for by the state. ON THE OTHER HAND, like across much of Europe, there aren't a lot of jobs for young people both while they are studying and afterwards. Then consider that if one accepts the premise of a few paragraphs above that most city-dwellers in Slavic lands tend to gravitate toward the country during summer time, this further depletes the need for any "seasonal work" in the cities during the summer. Indeed, since Communist times, one of the few sources of extra income that college-aged Czechs would have during the summer would be to take on a "brigada" (lit. join a brigade) to help with farm work and especially with the harvest. Indeed, near the beginning of the film, one of the two adventuring/scamming university students, Kája, is heard calling his somewhat incredulous mother from a village where he is staying (using a payphone because, said village still doesn't have cell-phone access...) to tell her that he is "still" on one of those brigadas.
Anyway, the film takes place near the end of the summer as the two enter the last village that they are going to scam in this way. They drive-up in their van (with a magnetic temporary decal identifying it as belonging to some official sounding alphabet soup acronym-ed cell-phone company), change into their still very much student looking suits (but hey, they're wearing at least suit-coat and tie) and with a projector, they enter village's local pub to give their spiel (pitch). They go through the usual, saying that they represent this very serious sounding alphabet soup acronym-ed telecom company, that they are here to survey sites to extend their company's coverage to their picturesque little village and ... that the owner of the property on which the new cell tower would be built would get 5,000 annually from the telecom company for their troubles. PERHAPS because the villagers didn't seem particularly impressed by the pitch or the sum offered, or PERHAPS because it was simply the end of the summer (the last time that they would try to pull this scam off for the summer...), Filoš adds "I naturally mean 5,000 Euros" (not 5,000 Czech crowns, the Czech Rep. perhaps with aspirations of becoming of a new Switzerland (some would say "with delusions of becoming another Switzerland ;-), is one of the few states in the E.U. which has never chosen to get on the Euro. Though still largely pegged-to but independent of the Euro, the exchange rate as about 20 Kč / Euro).
Well the prospect of getting an extra income of 5,000 Euro a year, catches the attention of the villagers and for the first time the two start getting showered by some similarly serious bribes. Mr. Pilka (played by Karel Roden [IMDB] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) probably already the richest man in the village saw the potential extra income from the cell tower as a means to finally give him the capital to restart the saw mill/lumber business that his family once had (his last name actually means "little saw."). The late-teenage daughter Verunka (played by Eva Josefíková [IMDB] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) of the pub owner Staněk (played by Bolek Polivka [IMDB] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) saw the potential revenue as helping her widowed father get out of debt (and possibly helping her get on with her life as she hoped to go onto nursing school). The mayor, Medek (played by Norbert Lichý [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*), sees the potential new income as a means to finally allow the village pay for some of the amenities that their "sister village" in Austria has long had (new sidewalks, a library, a nice fountain in the center of town). He confesses to the two young scam-artists that he's tired of being embarrassed by "those Tyrolese" whose village is always a few steps ahead of them. Even the town's gypsy bus-driver Mato (played by Viliam Čonka [IMDB] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) gets into the action perhaps hoping that he could also use the money quit his job or get out of town.
Only the village hermit Prokeš (played by Jiří Menzel [IMDB] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) who lives in a house at the edge of town and refuses to have even electricity is unimpressed. But as is often case (my paternal grandmother's village had a very similar figure with a very similar story ;-), village hermit though he is, Prokeš is no dummy. A former physicist, he returned back to his village in the 1950s after being refused by the Communist authorities of the time the go-ahead on the construction of a particle accelerator that he tells faux cell-tower salesman/actual physics student Kája the Canadians built soon afterwards. Throughout the two college students' stay, he repeatedly engages the two in technical conversations about the cell tower to the increasing worry of Kája who feels he's onto them. Kája soon proves both scared of him and intrigued by him (as Kája's going to be going to CERN at the end of the summer, the site of the famous Hadron particle accelerator). Kája tells Filoš that there's no way that they're going to be able to pull this prank, which has turned into a potentially punishable scam off.
For his part Filoš is initially too distracted chasing after first the inn-keeper's daughter Verunka and then Pilka's rather neglected and (as we find later, abused) wife (played by Kateřina Winterová [IMDB] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) even as the various bribes start coming in.
Now how to just get out of town? Well initially, they try to do what they've done in the other villages that they've pulled this prank on over the summer: After dutifully walking about the village and its surrounding fields and countryside with their very serious looking instrument, they announce to the villagers that they've taken their measurements and are going to send the results to HQ. "And?" ask the villagers. "Well, HQ will decide." But this time, each of the villagers has put some serious money down on the result going their way. They don't appear to be willing to accept the line. Filoš then grasps at a second straw: "Truth be told, we've found that EVERYONE ONE OF YOU would have a suitable site for the tower." "And?" respond the villagers. "Well, you've been so nice to us, all of you, that we feel that we really can't decide." ;-)
What now? Two scammers throw the question back to the villagers. They decide to "race for it" the next day riding motor-scooters up to a hilltop ruin of a castle nearby. "PERFECT," the two tell them and then request that they could stay with the village hermit (who lives at the edge of town) that night (hoping to get away). Well the next day, the villagers get on their motor scooters to race to the ruin of the nearby castle, while the two hope to run out of town in the opposite direction. But the two find that the villagers had removed the tires from their truck 'for safe keeping' and the motorbike that they find has little gas... in the meantime, the villagers race up the nearby hilltop castle ... and what do they find already being built there? ;-) ;-)
Pissed off, they race back down to catch the two scoundrels. Much still ensues as the two had been forced to try to flee without their truck (which the villagers had put on blocks) and then, surprise ... even the bribe money that they had received is ... gone. Who had it? If the two scoundrels didn't have it? Then who? And how much did everybody give these two clowns anyway? ;-)
So everybody finds that they have mud on their faces ;-) And much still has to be resolved. And it is, and as a good story, it all ends well ;-).
It's a goofy story, touching on some fairly important issues in the contemporary C.R., including, of course, corruption. But it ends also with a smile. And pretty much everybody wins.
The film ends with a cheerful big-bandy number called "Čekám na Signál" ("Waiting for a Signal") sung by Vojtěch Dyk [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* who played the music major in the film ;-). It all makes for a very, very fun ride. Good job! Dobre jste to odehrály ;-)
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