We are all our own worst enemies. Rare opportunities dismissed, family ignored, bad habits embraced. And then there's Marcela Cmolíková, the wildly beating heart of Jan Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovsky's "Beauty in Trouble." She is both beautiful and trouble.
Played by Ana Geislerová, Marcela is all flashing eyes and curled lips, and it's no wonder. We meet her as her family's home and business are just emerging from the muck left behind by a disastrous flood. Marcela, the mother of two children, isn't happy. To say she's tightly wound is an understatement: You could bounce quarters off her cheeks, and every smile hides resentment over her situation.
This being a Czech film, drama, comedy, history, and social commentary are served up in equal proportion. Marcela's husband, Jarda (Roman Luknár), is a brutish man-boy who makes ends meet - barely - by turning ill-gotten cars into spare parts. Jarda's mother, Líba (Emília Vásáryová), once fervently Communist and now obsessively religious, pleads with her son to repent; but when someone's Skoda disappears in the night, there's no question where it's going.
Marcela's mother, Zdena (Jana Brejchová), isn't much better, as she's kind but weak, with a selective memory and a husband who would give the nastiest summer-blockbuster villain a run for his money. Played to revolting perfection by Jirí Schmitzer - think Steve Buscemi at his least sympathetic - Rísa is in turns crass, lecherous, duplicitous, and cruel. That he's also ill isn't his doing, but how he uses his condition to manipulate and punish those around him very much is.
Into all this descends Evzen Benes (Josef Abrhám), a Czech expatriate who's been living in Italy. He's drawn back to Prague when his childhood home is awarded to him in a court settlement. After one of Jarda's associates picks the wrong car to boost, Marcela and Evzen meet in a delightfully underplayed scene at a police station. She's there to see - and curse - her husband, while Evzen, reading an Italian translation of Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," calmly waits to press charges.
At first there's no doubt: Evzen is everything Marcela's husband isn't - wealthy, kind, and cultured, for starters - and that's good. Friendly dinners soon run late into the night, and when Marcela and her children find themselves in need of a place to stay, Evzen is there to help. "You're just a dream, right?" Marcela asks, poking him in the chest as if to verify he's real. "The look on your face suggests the opposite," he replies.
Written by Jarchovský and directed by Hrebejk (best known for 2000's Oscar-nominated "Divided We Fall"), "Beauty in Trouble" has no shortage of plot. Beyond the natural disaster that kicks it off, there are not one but two funerals, several arrests, and more than a few physical confrontations, all topped off with a generous helping of emotional - and in one case, financial - extortion. Thankfully, the melodrama is interspersed with lighter moments, in particular a fancy meal at which Rísa, Zdena, and Marcela debate in furious whispers her future and Evzen's merits while he's off selecting the wine.
What's tougher to know is whether Jarchovský and Hrebejk fully respect any of the characters whose lives they've so intricately mapped out. Like Marcela, they're inconstant, praising someone one moment only to betray him or her the next - or the reverse. Is Evzen a saint or a doormat? Both. Jarda, a lout, is also sincerely in love with his wife and desperate to reunite his family. We're made to pity Rísa, but aren't permitted to forget his all-too-numerous shortcomings. And as for our beauty, she's been wronged at nearly every turn by life, but is no prize.
It's not giving away too much to say that there's no happy ending - nor is there an unhappy one. While "Beauty in Trouble" concludes with Marcela in a very different situation from when it began, the question remains the same: Will she make the right decision? Perhaps, but then again, what is the right decision?
Leighton Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.