Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Snake Brothers (orig. Kobry a Užovky) [2015]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing listing listing* listing*

Aktuálně.cz (J. Gregor) review* (M. Spáčilová) review* (M. Kabát) review* (S. Dvořák) review* (E. Luna) review* (M. Kudláč) review (R. Mowe) review
Variety (G. Lodge) review

The Snake Brothers (orig. Kobry a Užovky) [2015] [IMDb] [CEu] [CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed by Jan Prušinovský [IMDb] [CEu] [CSFD]*[FDB]*, screenplay by Jaroslav Žváček [IMDb] [CEu] [CSFD]*) is a rather dark if often quite funny CZECH COMEDY (OF SORTS) that played recently at the 19th (2016) Chicago European Union Film Festival held here at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

The film is about two grown brothers, both in their mid-later 20s, from a very dysfunctional family living in a random, mid-sized town somewhere in the CR today.

The younger one, nick-named Cobra (played by Kryštof Hádek [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*) is clearly "off" and arguably a petty psychopath, routinely getting himself into trouble.  The film's opening sequence shows him, with short purple hair and wearing a thug-like grey hoodie, breaking into a random home at the edge of town, IN BROAD DAY LIGHT, stealing the home's electronic equipment...

His older / more responsible brother nicknamed Užovka or Gardener Snake (played by Matěj Hádek [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*) finds himself _repeatedly_ bailing his younger brother out of various jams that he finds himself in, often to personal cost to himself (early in the film, he loses his job as a result of helping his brother from a run-in with the police outside a bar  the night before) and receives nothing even remotely resembling support or sympathy from most others for his efforts.  Even the two's own mother (played by Jana Šulcová [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*) considers her older son Užovka the bigger problem.  (Interestingly, there isn't a father, around at all...).

Why would Užovka be "the bigger problem"?  He doesn't keep sufficient eye on his younger brother to keep him out of trouble.  (But realistically, could he or ANYONE be able to do so?)  Then Užovka, who seems to be the only one in the family with a job -- Cobra is hopeless, and even ma' is apparently on public assistance -- apparently "doesn't come visiting (the other two) too much."  (Apparently Užovka's found a way to move out of the house, something _not_ particularly easy or common to do among young people in the CR even today)  Why would he want to move out even if it adds to expenses?   Well, when he's home, he's berated by his mom for not taking care of his younger brother enough and is shaken down (by her ...) for money ...  What a joy.

Then to folks / friends outside, rightly or wrongly (if they care to involve themselves at all) Užovka's simply from a "family of losers."

Early in the film, Užovka is berated by a former girlfriend named Zůza, short in Czech for Susan (played by Lucie Žáčková [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*), for being an incompetent dreamer/loser.  She's since married Užovka's former high school best friend Tomáš (played by Jan Hájek [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*), now an auto-mechanic, who's actually kinda getting tired of Zůza, as she's been "on maternity leave" now for 8 years (they have 2 kids ... but the youngest is like 6 ...) and HE'D really like to see her get a job.

So this then is the story's setup, which then focuses primarily on "Užovka" (again, the "Gardener Snake") in the story.   And it's about HIS slow "redemption" _of sorts_:

Another old "friend" from school named Ladík (played by David Máj [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*), rolls into to town "with a business proposal" (to open up some sort of a "clothing outlet store" in this random, rather depressed and certainly not going anywhere fast, town) and HE hits up Užovka to "help him."

How?  Well, obviously Ladík is a crook, even Užovka knows that.  Further, THE ONLY WAY that Užovka could "help" him would be TO HIT UP HIS OWN GRANDMOTHER (played wonderfully by Věra Kubánková [IMDb] [CSFD]* [FDB]*) TO PUT UP HER OWN HOUSE (the ONLY THING that ANYONE in Užovka's family actually owns) AS COLLATERAL for Užovka's loan (to help _Ladík_ start said business).

Now Readers understand here that Ladík PUT UP NO MONEY OF HIS OWN ... Instead, he's "founding a business" using Užovka's money, specifically money that Užovka got _from his grandma_ who put her own house on the line to get Užovka a loan.  (And yes, that Užovka got his own grandmother to risk her own house in her old age for his sake, does make him _something of a snake_ as well ...).

Why would Užovka do this, knowing quite well that Ladík is almost certainly a crook, and risk putting his own grandmother on the street for the sake of a venture that, at best, would be a "roll of the dice"?

Well Readers, why would ANYONE do that?  Obviously, because he didn't see (m)any other options.  So despite everything, he took this one.

What happens?  Well that's the rest of the movie ...

That the story is characterized as "a comedy" suggests that it (has to) "end well" (at least in some way) and it does (sort of).  But it is one heck of a ride ... and it isn't easy ...

Now, remember Readers, I am a Catholic priest, and I'm also actually of Czech descent (hence why I do enjoy watching not just American stories and then why I do (for heritage / still "old patriotic reasons") continue to hold Czech films / stories in "a special regard" ;-).  Understand also that I know quite well that the Czechs today, especially in the Czech Republic, are not exactly known for their "religiosity."

So as I watched most of this film, I kept shaking my head, saying to myself: "You know, this is what happens in a society that  no longer believes in God (everybody becomes a crook)...."  

 But by the end of the film, I actually realized that there's actually a fair amount of Biblical imagery (if perhaps present only _accidentally_) in the film.

Now how would that imagery get included if "only by accident"?  Similar observations have been made of French films / literature in the past as well: A culture that has been as steeped in a particular religion (Christianity) for as long as it has will inevitably retain the religion's symbolic language long after its common practice has gone dormant or died.  Why?  Religion is ultimately about Life and the same Truths / metaphorical expressions of them remain whether the Religion is held-to or not.  So a film such as this one about "Crookedness" / "Sin" and "Family" can not but allude to / make use of symbolism that any Christian would be familiar with, notably:

(1) The entire film could actually be seen as "a contemporary commentary" on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) with a number of twists: (i) the Father is clearly absent in this story.  He's remembered well by all -- the mother, as wel as the two sons -- but simply "long gone," (ii) Interestingly, since there is "no Father," there also "is no money." The two brothers had grown up in a "singe parent household") so even the younger brother never left home.  (In fact, it's the older brother who at least gets an apartment, nearby, on his own so that he can "get away from the dysfunction" at home).  Finally, (iii) clearly, the story here is taken more from the perspective of the older / "more responsible" of the brothers, but ...

(2) It's clear just from the film's title that BOTH brothers are to be seen as "snakes," an obvious Biblical image taken from story of The Fall (Gen 2-3).  One interesting nuance added here and is that one of the brothers is nicknamed "Cobra" and other "Užovka" (or "Gardener Snake") hence noting that while both would be sinners / "snakes," one would be "a bigger sinner" (certainly a bigger problem) than the other ...

(3) Finally, the story of Užovka's "redemption of sorts" REMINDS ONE A LOT OF THAT OF THE BIBLICAL STORY OF JACOB (Gen 25-33), who, if one is honest, was _also_ "A LITTLE THIEF."  The Biblical Jacob stole his brother Esau's inheritance (Gen 27:1ff).  And later Jacob stole from his father-in-law Laban (Gen 30:25ff).  BUT THEN, LIKE UŽOVKA in this story, Jacob didn't necessarily have a lot of options, and at the end of many years of a very difficult (and not completely honest life) Jacob spent a night in the Desert "wrestling" with a mysterious man (Gen 32:23ff), at the end of which he received from that mysterious man, a new name -- Israel -- which means "One who wrestles with God" (Gen 32:29).

Anyway thoughout the story, Užovka was always "kind of a snake" / not always honest, but he was also never completely "a lost cause" or "evil."  As such, at the end of the film, the screenwriters do seem to bless him as well ...

One interesting if, often enough, unnerving film ;-)

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