Director Miroslav Krobot combines elements of biting satire with droll comedy – not always successfully – in Díra u Hanušovic, a frustratingly deadpan account of small-town apathy in Middle-of-Nowhere, Czech Republic. The film’s English title is the appropriate ‘Nowhere in Moravia’, though the Czech literally translates as the bitter Hole in Hanušovice (Hanušovice being a small town in Northern Moravia).
In this Hole, a group of disparate characters – each more unlikable than the last – are paraded around the screen for our proposed enjoyment. At the center of it all is Maruna (played by Tatiana Vilhelmová), who lives with her mother (Johanna Tesařová) in a ramshackle house in need of repair, and runs the local pub – which seems to contain the only TV in town – with sister Jaruna (Lenka Krobotová, the director’s daughter).
Maruna, of course, dreams of a better life – her plight (and her sister’s) vaguely reminiscent of Aňa Geislerová’s character in Kráska v nesnázích – but seems to lack any ambition to pursue it. When Jaruna strikes up a friendship with a German man who seems to offer some reprieve from this shithole existence, we can feel the blood boiling beneath Maruna’s otherwise indifferent veneer.
Krobot and crew have a great feel for life in this small-town dump, and Díra u Hanušovic is at its best in the first half-hour as it establishes the characters and their surroundings. There’s the ‘mayor’ (Ivan Trojan), who is sleeping with Maruna and promises to move her into his new house, a place in such disrepair that we cannot tell if it is being built, or falling apart (Trojan’s character is proud to carefully install a new mantelpiece, even though the house lacks a roof or even solid walls).
Then there’s the simple-minded Olin (Jaroslav Plesl), who takes German lessons from Maruna; whether digging graves or repairing a roof, Olin seems to be the only character doing some actual work during the film, though he is given no charity from the other characters, who continually mock him.
Hynek Čermák and David Novotný also star as a pair of low-rent woodsmen who live (and sleep) with the same woman, memorably portrayed by Simona Babčáková, who dominates the screen with a non-stop stream of grotesque vulgarity; Ján Kožuch and Lukáš Latinák play a pair of father-and-son handymen; and Martin Myšička is “Stinky”, one of the three local vagrants, and the one character in the film I felt any empathy for.
As the film establishes its characters and setting, which is beautifully captured through cinematographer Jan Baset Strítežský’s static compositions, Díra u Hanušovic builds an amusing Fellini-esque freak show. But it soon becomes apparent that the film has nowhere to take these creatures: while the script (by Krobot and Lubomír Smékal) is eventful, the theme of apathy-above-all not only infects the characters in the film – who barely have the energy to shrug their shoulders at a murder – but also the audience. It becomes impossible to get involved in the movie, let alone care about these people.
The material in Díra u Hanušovic could have been taken in any direction: ribald comedy, biting social polemic, small-town mystery/thriller, or searing drama. Instead, the film makes its point early on – these lives are going nowhere, and these people simply don’t care – and proceeds to bang us over the head with an absurd hipster-irony about the pointlessness of their existence. The director is careful to keep a distance from his characters, as if observing animals in a zoo; the unemotional, deadpan filmmaking is a perfect match, but the technique eventually becomes wearying.
Director Krobot began his career as a theater director, but is better known as an actor; he won a Czech Lion for his role in Příběhy obyčejného šílenství, and has been nominated the past three years for his work in Revival, Okresní přebor, and Dom (he also played the lead in the motion capture Alois Nebel). Díra u Hanušovic marks his feature film debut as director.
Most films by actors-turned-directors are criticized for being too talky, or investing too much in character versus overall story. It’s surprising, then, to see Krobot strand many of his actors on the screen; while Vilhelmová gets a chance to shine, and potentially win our sympathy, most of the other actors are left to their own devices as they struggle to bring some life to their thinly-sketched characterizations.
But for its failings in tone and storytelling, it must be noted that Díra u Hanušovic quite perfectly captures an atmosphere that – fairly or unfairly – has become almost synonymous with the Czech Republic. This is a film that both turned me off and tested my patience, but I cannot deny its apathetic authenticity.