The filmmaking team of Czech director Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský, two of the most prominent figures in the local film industry, are best known for two films made at the turn of the century: 1999’s nostalgic communist-era Pelíšky (Cosy Dens), one of the most beloved of all modern Czech movies, and Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall), a striking WWII comedy-drama that was nominated for an Oscar.
In the 17 years since, however, the pair haven’t quite matched those two earlier efforts. But in 2017, they’re trying something unprecedented: a trilogy of WWII-era movies set for release in Czech cinemas over the course of the year.
The first of those features, Zahradnictví: Rodinný přítel (The Garden Store: Family Friend) is now playing in cinemas throughout the country. And it’s a first-rate production that ranks right alongside Hřebejk and Jarchovský’s finest work.
The setup is simple: as Nazi forces assert control over Czechoslovakia in 1939, a trio of brothers covertly working for the Czech resistance (Jindřich, played by Martin Finger, Karel (Karel Dobrý), and Otto (Jiří Macháček)) are arrested by the Gestapo and sent to foreign prison camps.
While the first twenty minutes of this first movie details the arrests, their stories will be expanded upon in the the next two Zahradnictví movies, Dezertér (Deserter), which comes out in September, and Nápadník (Suitor), in cinemas in November.
Rodinný přítel, meanwhile, focuses on the families they left behind: sisters Vilma (Aňa Geislerová), wife of Jindřich; Ela (Gabriela Míčová), married to Otto; and Bedřiška (Klára Melíšková). In the ensuing years, the three sisters struggle to raise their children during wartime with the help of the titular doctor and family friend, Jiří (Ondřej Sokol).
There’s also Jindřich and Karel’s sisters, Marci (Sabina Remundová) and Emilka (Lenka Krobotová). Emilka’s husband Miloš (David Novotný) runs the titular countryside Garden Store, where many of the events of the film revolve upon; he refused to help smuggle documents for the brothers, and was spared their fate.
With ten featured characters who are all part of the same extended family, the relationships can get pretty confusing; you might want to study this family tree before watching.
Prime focus here, however, is on the character’s played by Geislerová and Sokol; while Vilma’s husband and Jiří’s childhood friend is missing and presumed dead, they form a close – and potentially romantic – bond. Vilma’s young daughter grows up during wartime with Jiří a surrogate for the father she never met.
There’s a heartbreaking, and multilayered, scene here where Jiří is tasked with relaying a message received to Vilma, and finds himself unable to do so. But while early scenes are dedicated solely to developing the characters, there’s a late twist that forces them to reevaluate their situation; now, they must adjust to life after wartime.
There are other rich and memorable moments here, and each character is given room to grow; even loudmouth sister Marci and the garden store owner Miloš, who has a touching and reflective moment with the children in his greenhouse.
Like Hřebejk and Jarchovský’s best work, Family Friend achieves an exquisite balance between comedy and drama: it never betrays the situation the characters are in, but frequently finds real-world levity amidst the wartime drama.
Geislerová and Sokol are both excellent here, and I found the film’s final moments, relayed via voiceover from the Geislerová character, quietly and unexpectedly devastating. Even the most hardened cynics aren’t likely to walk away unaffected.
But while I found Zahradnictví: Rodinný přítel to rank right alongside the filmmakers’ best work, local critics and audiences have been less kind. I think that will improve in time – my appreciation for the film has only grown in the weeks since I’ve seen it – especially with the release of the next two movies.
While marketed locally as a prequel to Pelíšky, which was set during the late 1960s, there’s little here that might actually connect the two films. Press material suggests Jindřich, the character played here by Martin Finger, is intended to be the same as the one played by Jiří Kodet in the earlier movie (the easily-agitated neighbor with a heart condition).