In Slávek Horák’s Domácí péče (Home Care), middle-aged nurse Vlasta (Alena Mihulová) is told she has half a year to live. Doctors can’t do anything to cure her cancer or even prolong her life, and offer her only painkillers to help her deal with the pain.
It’s a situation she should be familiar with. Vlasta is, after all, a home care nurse who looks after elderly patients who can no longer take themselves to the hospital, and at least partially deals with easing them into their passing.
But her own impending demise sends Vlasta into a tailspin. With an aloof husband (amusingly played by Bolek Polívka), and a near-estranged daughter (Sara Venclovská) with her own issues, including an impending marriage, Vlasta has nowhere to turn.
That is, until she meets Mlada (Tatiana Vilhelmová), a spiritual healer and dance instructor, in the home of her patients. Vlasta isn’t convinced by Mlada’s hands-on “healing” of her father’s back, but waitaminute – a bent spoon? She’s in.
Spoon bending, of course, is the magic trick of a fraudulent psychic, and completely out of character with how Mlada’s healthy spiritualist is otherwise presented. But that’s not the first time the film fails to show understanding for one of its central themes.
Vlasta – a nurse, presumably, for most of her life before the cancer – is quick to buy into the spiritual healing, and even shows genuine progress under the tutelage of a guru (Zuzana Kronerová, in the film’s most memorable role). Doctors can’t explain how she isn’t feeling intense pain without the aid of traditional medicine.
“You can’t heal a broken soul with bandages!” she shouts at a roomful of physicians, who happen to be having a party in the hospital for some reason. Still, she happily joins them for a few shots.
The film shows little compassion for – or understanding of – religion, either, another possible recourse for someone doing some soul searching. When Vlasta accompanies a patient to a local church, she has a brief conversation with the priest about potential acceptance into heaven.
“And what if she doesn’t believe?”
The priest simply shrugs his shoulders. “Eh.” Whaddya want, right?
But when the guru lets slip that she can’t, you know, actually cure cancer, Vlasta freaks out and rejects her spiritual teachings, too. Despite the genuine good they’ve done for her so far. It’s the second such scene in which the writer-director asks too much of his actress, and what we end up with the 50-year-old Mihulová running away screaming and waving her hands in the air.
There is room for medicine, spirituality, and religion in modern life – and they’re not mutually exclusive ideologies. But Domácí péče wants to paint them all with the same broad strokes, never delving beneath their most surface elements.
Set in rural Moravian wine country, the film features some lovely cinematography by Jan Šťastný and has some similarities to last year’s Nowhere in Moravia, achieving roughly the same results. Director Miroslav Krobot’s deadpan presentation in that film, however, was at least a more interesting approach to the material.
Polívka’s droll wit helps Domácí péče keep one foot firmly in the familiar genre of Czech dramedy (without it, the experience might have been insufferable), but his character is genuinely irredeemable.
Here’s a guy who refuses to even kiss his dying wife – he won’t even lay a peck on her cheek – and any attempt at redemption at the end feels like too little, too late.
By the end of Domácí péče, Vlasta – and the film – has rejected modern medicine, religion, and spirituality as potential resources for dealing with her impending demise.
Instead, she has learned to accept her fate by dying the same way she has been living: by serving her loutish, loveless husband on hand and foot, teaching him how to survive without her.
Domácí péče was one of two Czech films in competition at this year’s Karlovy Vary film festival, along with the far superior The Snake Brothers. The top prize was ultimately won by Diego Ongaro’s US entry, Bob and the Trees.