Holding out for a hero

Unexpected bravery in the worst of times.


directed by Jan Hrebejk with Boleslav Pol???a, Anna SiskovᬠCsongor Kassai, and Jaroslav Dusek opens June 29 at Broadway Market

HEROISM IN MOVIES is mostly the simple business of chest-thumping warriors. Yet in Jan Hrebejk's triumphant, dark comedy set in a small German-occupied Czech village during World War II, heroism is the complex beating back of fear just long enough to do the right thing.

Right up until this Oscar-nominated film's moving denouement, sad-sack Josef (Boleslav Pol???a) never completely overcomes his fear after he and his wife Marie (Anna Siskov᩠impulsively decide to hide concentration camp escapee and former neighbor David (Csongor Kassai, with a devastatingly calm, soulful visage). Josef has been spending his days napping in a state of complacent unemployment, and this newly accepted threat to his security does not sit well—you feel he could break down at any moment. It doesn't help that the couple is hesitantly catering to the whims and visitations of Horst (Jaroslav Dusek), a former co-worker of Josef's who has a yen for Marie and is morally slumbering himself by collaborating with the Nazis.

Aside from a madcap sense of humor as everyone scrambles to cover their own behind, Divided's distinguishing feature is the generous kindness with which Hrebejk and screenwriter/source novelist Petr Jarchovsky stride into the savage arena of human fallibility. The movie is awake enough to consider how horrifyingly easy it is for the most benign person in the world to ignore every decent human response in the name of self-preservation. Neither Josef nor Marie is ennobled by courage (Pol???a and Siskovᠧive remarkably shaded performances), while Horst never seems less than an unhappy pawn. ("You wouldn't believe what abnormal times can do to normal people," Josef explains, to which David replies quietly, "I would.")

With the film's dovetailing of wartime terror with mordant humor, someone is bound to start crowing comparisons to Life Is Beautiful, so we might as well get that out of the way: Divided is an altogether different, and better, picture. Roberto Benigni's 1997 Oscar-winner was spoiled for many by the Chaplinesque conceit of a lone cut-up in a world of straight-faced men. By contrast, Hrebejk and Jarchovsky's entire world is a grim circus peopled with desperate clowns, lending their terrifyingly comic absurdities that much more resonance. Not all of the farcical chestnuts hauled out here—slamming doors, fugitive lovers, et al.—work perfectly, but their tensely manic parts add up to a whole that is far greater than Benigni's sentimental shtick. The film is a hauntingly hopeful paean to the resilient nature of compassion.


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