Satirical Czech film pokes fun at neighborly disagreeability
Jiří Havelka’s entertaining ensemble comedy, The Owners (Czech title: Vlastníci), is set in a condominium building in present-day Prague, Czechia, where the property holders are attending their periodic homeowners’ association meeting. It’s an early evening in the middle of the Christmas season, and a few of the owners—particularly the association’s businesslike chair, the harried Mrs. Zahrádková (Tereza Ramba) and her meek husband (Vojta Kotek)—are anxious to get past the meeting as soon as possible. Their families await them, and these get-togethers tend to go on forever.
Lots of luck with that. As writer-director Havelka’s screenplay would have it—it’s adapted from his stage play—this HOA gathering resembles a crate of agitated squirrels forced to march in a straight line.
Mrs. Zahrádková, concerned about the lack of maintenance in the decrepit old building, is determined to stick to her list of urgent issues even as she gradually loses control of the situation. Arrayed against her are a stereotypical cast of fidgety nincompoops instantly familiar to anyone who has ever attended a town hall open-mic night or a grassroots grievance committee discussion.
Officious, prosecutorial Mrs. Roubícková (Klára Melísková) keeps a nervous watch on even the minutest parliamentary procedures, at least until she runs out of gas. Cranky Ms. Horváthová (Dagmar Havlová) is several shades more disagreeable; her eyewear malfunction is only a preamble to her snoopy, and eventually racist, proclamations. Down at the end of the table, Mr. Kubát (Jiří Lábus), a shambles of a man, warms up with snide comments on everyone else’s points before settling into his favorite subject: How dreadful 21st-century life is compared to the socialist good old days. Mr. Kubát’s droning nostalgic outbursts are nothing compared to his homophobia.
The relatively commonsensical Mr. Nitranský (Andrej Polák) can’t resist making snarky comments, but the fact that he’s the group’s only gay man makes him instantly dismissible in his neighbors’ eyes. Also singled out for muttered abuse is Mrs. Procházková (Pavla Tomicová). She has too many “dark guests”—in this case subleasing immigrants from Ghana—living in her flat. Sure enough, someone accuses her of keeping “sex slaves.” Mrs. Procházková is smart enough to bring along her own lawyer (Ondrej Malý).
The comic relief in this college of clods is surely Mr. Svec (David Novotný), a bumbling dim bulb who ODs on brandy and pastries. The recently repatriated twin brothers, the Cermáks (Krystof Hádek and Stanislav Meyer), behave—with their efficient note-taking—for all the world like a pair of attorneys gathering evidence. Do they harbor ulterior motives? Meanwhile, Mr. Sokol (Ladislav Trojan) sits in the corner, saying nothing. Also keeping to themselves until the right moment are the newlyweds—one of whom, Mrs. Bernásková (Marie Sawa), is a pregnant immigrant from Japan. Cue further un-subtle racism.
Everything the self-centered “owners” could possibly disagree about, they do. The result is talky in the extreme, but that’s the point: Nitpicking and fussbudgetry from the start, including over the homemade snacks and liquor, for the obligatory toast. Misunderstanding and complaining at every turn. Several issues, few agreements.
Actor-turned-director Havelka is too young to have experienced Czechoslovakia as a Soviet satellite firsthand, but this film’s flavorful observational social satire is strongly reminiscent of the celebrated “Czech New Wave” of the 1960s, when such creators as Miloš Forman (The Firemen’s Ball), Jan Nĕmec (Mucedníci lásky) and Jiří Menzel (Larks on a String, Closely Watched Trains) used sly humor and sure-footed characterization to poke veiled fun at their country’s heavy-handed government.
In The Owners, the Czech political system has changed and the characters’ props now include cellphones and social media, but Havelka assures us that basic human nature has not made great advances since the Prague Spring of 1968. The same everyday stubbornness and lack of cooperation that inspired such claustrophobic talk-fests as Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and Roman Polanski’s Carnage still apply today to Havelka’s frustrated mini-capitalists. Enjoy.