One of the first images we see in the new Czech comedy-drama Teorie tygra (The Theory of the Tiger) is an unexpectedly graphic shot of a recently-neutered housecat that serves as a none-too-subtle metaphor for the themes in film to come.
“Czech men live, on average, nine years less than Czech women,” college professor Olga (Eliška Balzerová) tells her class early in the film. The reason for this? Lifestyle – Czech men tend to smoke more, drink more, eat less healthy, and see a corresponding dip in their life expectancy.
To compensate for this, the professor suggests, it’s up to the women to manage the lives of their husbands – good food, safe environment, limitation of risks – to ensure a long and fruitful life. That’s exactly what her mother (Iva Janžurová) did, granting her father a life nine years longer than the average.
And that’s exactly what Olga has been doing with her own husband, veterinarian Jan (Jiří Bartoška). And Jan and Olga’s daughter Olinka (Táňa Vilhelmová) has been doing the same with her husband, Josef (Jakub Kohák).
But how do the men feel about this arrangement? Olga and Jan’s son Erik (Jiří Havelka) has found a wife (Pavla Beretová) that takes her husband’s personal freedom as a given, and seems all the happier for it.
Out the outset of Teorie tygra, Olga’s father has died after his long and fruitful life, and the extended family converges for the funeral.
But Bartoška’s Jan is distressed to learn that not only did his mother-in-law manage her husband’s living existence – he never took that houseboat out on the river, and didn’t ride his bicycle in his later years – but she’s managing his afterlife, too: he’ll be buried in a cemetery plot so she can visit him, against his clear wishes that he be cremated.
Jan sees a parallel with his own life and marriage, and the kind of freedom he hasn’t had the chance to enjoy. Call it a late-life crisis, but nearing 70 and after more than three decades of marriage, the guy realizes he’s missed out on something. How to get it? His wife is set in her ways, and he still cares too much about her to propose divorce.
His solution is almost literally crazy, and generates the film’s best comedic moments but also underscores them with a bitter poignancy.
Teorie tygra is a sterling example of the contemporary Czech dramedy, which was pioneered by directors like Jan Svěrák and Jan Hřebejk, and has been the predominant genre in the Czech film scene since Svěrák’s Kolja won an Oscar two decades ago.
But it’s a fine line to walk, and all too often these movies feel underwhelming or insufficient, sacrificing comedy for drama or vice versa and failing to satisfy on either fronts.
Teorie tygra, meanwhile, is up to the task. It’s darker and deeper and funnier that most of the Czech family comedy-dramas I’ve seen over the past decade-plus, and one of the finest examples of the genre. It would seem almost a shoo-in to be the country’s submission to next year’s Oscars, and it’s good enough to earn a nomination.
Jiří Bartoška is one of the Czech Republic’s most famous actors, known best, perhaps, for his work on TV. But I’ve never seen him dominate a film role like he does here: he’s incredibly endearing in the lead, and earns our sympathy the hard way with a warts-and-all performance that allows us to embrace what might typically be seen as shortcomings in his character.
One of the great contrasts in this film is between the male characters, who yearn for an idealized vision of Czech culture that involves drinking, smoking, eating sausages, bonding with nature and floating aimlessly down the Vltava, and their female counterparts, who live a more safe, sanitized – let’s say Westernized – existence.
Neither side is right or wrong. But it’s great to see a mainstream Czech comedy that is both blissfully entertaining and also tackles such thought-provoking thematic undercurrents. Kudos to writer-director Radek Bajgar, making his feature film debut.