For a country with so much trouble in its recent past, the Czech film industry has recently produced several films with a tendency to the reassuringly whimsical. Empties turns the focus to the autumn years but maintains its sense of humour.
Zdenek Sverák is Josef Tkaloun, a school teacher with a special interest in the literature of his homeland, and in the female form. He tires of his marriage, and can’t understand his students anymore, while his wife and daughter are both unfulfilled. Unhappy in life, he strikes out afresh and takes a job collecting empty beer bottles in his local supermarket, bringing him into contact with a world he never knew. What he isn’t expecting, however, is to find that what he has been searching for was there all along.
The two central performances are excellent. Sverák is wonderful as the irrascible older man – his is a comfortable yet potent turn that is reassuring for its lack of overt dramatics. Kolárová is allowed to play his wife with a little more edge, yet she imbues a quiet dignity for much of her screen time with just a hint of her deep unhappiness threatening to bubble to the surface.
The film suffers from much the same problem with its midsection as its star and hero – there is just a hint of flab here that detracts from its appeal. The opening and closing sequences are much stronger, however, and it would be a hard soul indeed who didn’t leave this film with a smile on their face. More impressive still is the comic touch of director Jan Sverák (writer and star Zdenek Sverák is his father) – there are several scenes that provoke outright laughter and many more that require a smile.
The use of dream sequences allows another dimension to the hero’s personality to be seen, as well as the conflicts of conscience he experiences during his journey. These never work quite as well as they might, and certainly not to the degree that a similar technique enhanced I Served the King of England, the last Czech film I was lucky enough to see.
Empties is an enjoying – at times extremely so – film that pursues its thesis of there being more to older people than their former careers or the lives of their children. That it is packaged in a light and witty form that should please most discerning film viewers makes it all the more worthwhile.Rating: