Signál, the latest film from young director Tomáš Řehořek (Czech Made Man) starts out with a can’t-miss premise but eventually turns into a muddle. What first appears to be a Czech variant on Local Hero – with one key difference – is easygoing and watchable but entirely lacking the magical charm that Bill Forsythe’s 1983 film so enchanting.
Local Hero starred Burt Lancaster and Peter Riegert as American oil executives attempting to buy up land in a small Scottish village in order to build a refinery. Most of the locals have dollar signs in their eyes, but Riegert’s character slowly becomes wary of selling out the quaint little village that he has found a new home in.
In Signál, Filip (Vojtěch Dyk) and Kája (Kryštof Hádek) are hotshot telecoms agents from the city who visit a ‘hick’ village in the countryside to scout potential locations for a new signal tower. The locals start to get interested when informed of a 3-5,000 Euro monthly commission, paid to the owner of the property deemed best suited for the tower.
But here’s the twist: Filip and Kája aren’t telecoms agents at all; instead, they’re just pranksters having a bit of fun. Ill-conceived, needlessly complicated “fun”, which neither of them seem to be enjoying at all. But while we get the sense that they’ve done this before as a simple prank, there’s some serious money to be made from the small-towners here, who attempt to out-bribe each other in order for their property to be chosen.
Those locals include Bolek Polívka as a local pub owner, and Eva Josefíková as his daughter; Karel Roden as an abusive husband, with Kateřina Winterová as his wife; Norbert Lichý as the local mayor; Hynek Čermák as a police officer; and director Jiří Menzel as a former physicist whose ideas were discarded by communist authorities.
Here’s the problem with Signál: save for the Menzel character, we don’t care about any of these people, least of all the two leads, whose motives are never really clear. There’s natural conflict between the kids and the locals in this story, but writer Marek Epstein forces it unnaturally into the foreground, first introducing the robbery angle, and then, incredibly, attempted murder.
Thematically, this thing is a muddle; are we supposed to be rooting for the kids to pull off this meaningless prank? For the locals to get revenge? I initially expected the leads to discover some local charm and change their tune a la Local Hero; instead, things end up more like Straw Dogs. And what in the world is up with that resolution between the wife-beating character played by Roden and his spouse?
Widescreen cinematography by Tomáš Sysel presents an appealingly desaturated color palette, but the visual look of the film is sidetracked by a manic camera that refuses to stay still. From the very first shot – a wobbly landscape – the handheld camera doesn’t stop moving until the final credits roll. It’s a bizarre choice of shooting style that doesn’t fit the tone of the film at all.
Co-lead Dyk is best known as the frontman for the band Nightwork; his character is an aspiring choir singer, and Dyk also croons the film’s catchy theme, Čekám na signál. Acting, from a cast of recognizable names and faces, is one of the film’s strongest assets; Menzel, in particular, makes a strong impression.