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On movies: 'Beauty in Trouble'

This article first appeared in th St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 5, 2009 - Many movies are based on long narrative or epic poems, movies like "Beowulf," "The Raven" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Sometimes the movies are called something else. The "Iliad" became "The Trojan Horse" "and "Troy." The "Odyssey," filmed several times under its original name, also became "Ulysses," not to mention "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and "Cold Mountain."

But I can't think of any feature films based on short lyric poems, before now. Czech director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsk say they were inspired to make the engaging, character-rich dark comedy "Beauty in Trouble" by a Robert Graves poem of that name. But the poem did more than just "inspire" the film - it laid down the plot: a beautiful young woman goes back and forth between the rat she can't stop yearning for and the decent, prosperous, affectionate older man who adores her and wants to take care of her.

Did I mention the older man owns a villa and a vineyard in Tuscany, and the rat is in prison?

The 28-line poem begins:

Beauty in trouble flees to the good angel
On whom she can rely
To pay her cab-fare, run a steaming bath,
Poultice her bruised eye. . .

The movie, more or less, begins the same way. From there, it follows the plot of the poem, at least until the end, which I won't reveal except to say that Beauty in the movie is just as conflicted as Beauty in the poem, except perhaps a little wiser.

"Beauty in Trouble" stars a fine (and beautiful) Czech actress, Ana Geislerova ("Zelary"). She plays Marcela, whose short-tempered mechanic husband runs a stolen car ring to keep his family's head above water. The devastating Prague floods of 2002 destroyed almost everything they owned, and now Marcela and her two kids live in tiny rooms above the car ring's chop shop and try to fall asleep to the scream of power tools.

Fed up with her life and her out-of-control husband, whose abuse is more emotional than physical, Marcela grabs her children and moves in with her mother. Mom's apartment is tiny, but Mom is sweet and accommodating. Sadly, she is even more foolish in love than her daughter. Her husband, Marcela's stepfather, is a nasty piece of work named "Uncle Ricki" who slithers around the apartment like a snake, making lewd suggestions to the kids when he's not yelling at them for scarfing down his diabetic cookies or forgetting to take out the trash. The actor Jiri Schmitzer is to be complimented for bringing to Uncle Ricki a level of triumphant, crazed creepiness not seen since the demise of Klaus Kinski.

Marcela needs to move again, and that's where the good angel of the poem comes in. His name is Benes, which translates, more or less, as "good" in several Romance languages. And he is good. And handsome, in a professorial sort of way, with a well-trimmed white beard and a twinkle in his eye. He even likes kids.

You may have to swallow your disbelief that a bachelor this eligible is walking around loose in Czechoslovakia. 

And speaking of things you have to swallow, Benes meets Marcela because his Volvo was stolen and her husband was caught with it and sent to jail. When Benes discovers her predicament, he immediately offers to let her live in a spare apartment he owns in Prague. She accepts, willing to do anything to get away from Uncle Ricki. Benes (acted with great reserve by Josef Abrham) treats her with utmost respect, introducing her to sushi and trying to convince her not to pour Coca-Cola in her wine. They go to sun-dappled Italy, where his villa has a swimming pool that seems to hang in the air above a chalky hill enshrined in grape vines. The kids love it and so does Marcela, who breaks out her bikini in celebration.

Clearly, we are in fairy tale land here. But it's a smudged fairy tale, and that helps make the movie more human. For instance, our heroine's motives for following Benes to Italy are hardly pure, although the man is such a sweetheart it would be quite idiotic not to fall in love with him, even if he is a generation older than she. And even if she is married.

Czech movies are known for the richness of their characters, and "Beauty in Trouble" presents a wonderful array of characters well worth studying. The characters are not all one thing, as they often are in American romances. Even Benes, the good angel, almost too good to be true, eventually clenches his fists and strikes back at people who try take advantage of his generosity. And Uncle Ricki, whose unhealthy cynicism and myopia were beaten into him by the late, unlamented Communist regime, gets a thimble full of sympathy, soon dissipated by the man's sheer malignancy. Every time life grows too rosy for Marcela and Benes, Ricki shows up, like a fat, pustular toad plopping down on a pristine Mediterranean beach.

Near the end of the movie, Marcela goes back to Prague for her mother's funeral. Her now-ex-husband is out of jail and has straightened up his life and has a legitimate job and a newly painted apartment. And he looks good. Marcela can't take her eyes off of him, and as the old animal magnetism draws them together, you almost want to scream out a warning, as kids do at horror movies. Marcela, you want to say, what about that sweet older man, and that swimming pool, and that wine straight from the barrel that actually tastes just fine without the Coca-Cola. For god's sake, don't go back to the rat, just because you want to crawl into his bed. You'll ruin your life.

So what's it to be for Marcela - comfort or joy? You'll see.

Opens Feb. 7

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.