Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Served the King of England

This 2006 Czechoslovakian import is an odd little film. In some ways, its quirky script and offbeat sense of humor remind me of The Coen Brothers' films. In other ways, it could very well be taken for a Merchant Ivory piece, in that it is magnificently filmed, divinely cast with a wonderful assortment of character actors, sophisticated, charming, and historically thought-provoking. Filled with imaginative but relatively small special effects (no parting of the Red Sea here), it is also appalling, as the central character’s political leanings have him literally sleeping (or at least bedding down) with the enemy.

As the movie opens, we meet Jan Dítě (Oldrich Kaiser), a fifty-something ex-con, who will serve as our narrator and focus for the next two hours. It is 1963, and Dítě has just been released from a Czech prison, after some fifteen years. Dispatched to a war-torn, long-deserted village on the Czech/German border, he needs no key to open the door of his government-issued home—a shell of a place in need of just about everything. As Jan goes about rebuilding it – and his life, he mentally revisits the circumstances that brought him to this place. His musings take us back to the late 1930s, when he was a young man in search of two things: great wealth and great women.

The young Jan, as played by Ivan Barnev, is impish - almost Chaplinesque in his movements. Short in stature (His name – Dítě - literally means “child” in Czechoslovakian) but long on ambition, he pursues his dreams with gusto, opportunism and slight-of-hand. An early encounter with a salesman who admires his unorthodox methods, evolves into a friendship/mentoring of sorts, leading to a series of positions as a waiter in some of the best hotels, spas and resorts in the country.

With each situation comes more power, more money and more women. As the film moves effortlessly between the past and present, we learn more about this often naive, fiercely ambitious, ever-clever young man and the times, while the reason behind his recent incarceration remains a mystery.

The film’s title refers not to Jan, but another mentor (the Maître d', Skřivánek)—at the exclusive Hotel Paříž in Prague. Skřivánek’s claim to fame? The 'fact' that he once served the King of England, and has an uncanny sense of intuition, knowing a customer’s financial situation, and food preference before he or she sits down to dine.

Over time, the ever-opportunistic Dítě acquires both experience and recognition, albeit at a price. Shunned by his countrymen, barely tolerated by the Germans he serves, he does what he has to, to become a millionaire.

Humor runs rampant here, even as the political climate darkens with the 1938 German occupation of Czechoslovakia. This is a side of the war seldom seen in film, as Jan’s political leanings and romantic yearnings lead him to marry and buy into Hitler’s agenda regarding the creation of a “master race”.

While there are many humorous moments in this movie, one scene in particular involving a bed, a portrait and a fuhrer-loving young lady, is laugh-out loud funny. Mel Brooks funny. I can’t believe I’m laughing at this, funny. It is –as I said– an odd little film, loaded with irony, small moments and events that lead to one of the all-time cinematic twists of fate: a gem of a plot point that this reviewer did not see coming.

Filmed in Prague and the surrounding area, I Served the King of England has much to recommend it, including a marvelous cast and terrific script by director Jiri Menzel and the late Bohumil Hrabal-whose novel provided the source material. Add to that a visually-stunning movie full of great settings and sets, beautiful women, mouth-watering food sequences and a satisfying conclusion. It is not to be missed.

And speaking of missing things – Some picsandpans2 followers have missed the occasional food find. That being the case, and as the ‘pans’ in 'picsandpans' refers to such culinary delights, I plan to devote my next posting to some of the more interesting and purchase-worthy foods I've come across over the past year. Aside from a few local offerings, most are available throughout the country. Until then, you’ll have to feast on great movies like this one. Bon Appetit!

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