Jan Hrebejk’s comedy “Pupendo” takes a wry look at the last days of communist Czechoslovakia by comparing the fortunes of two families who, though ideologically similar, adapt to life under the regime in starkly contrasting ways.
Bedrich (Bolek Polívka), a successful and respected sculptor prior to the crushing of the Prague Spring, has since been ostracised for his liberal views, and because of his steadfast refusal to enrol in the party and suck-up to the system, effectively jobless, and ekes out a living by reproducing kitsch pottery for a local businessman. His stoic wife Alena (Eva Holubová) and their two boys – one of them deaf, make up a closely-knit family with few disagreements among them.
The other family that we get to follow is of Mila (Jaroslav Dusek), married to Bedrich’s former lover Magda (Vilma Cibulková). Even though he too hates the political system, he complies, and is also a member of the communist party. He’s rewarded by being made headteacher of the school where boys of both the families attend. Mila’s older daughter Pavla is presently Bedrich’s apprentice. Magda, once Bedrich’s student herself, also complies with authorities, and is the head of the Artists Union.
When a drunk Bedrich brings home a bum that he saw rummaging through bins, Alena isn’t too pleased, and to make her point, offers the stranger Bedrich’s supper. The stranger would turn out to be Alois Fabera (Jirí Pecha), an art historian, fallen on hard times following a divorce. Fabera, already aware of Bedrich’s past works, uses his residual influence in the art establishment to assign him a contract for a mural at the school – one that’s aspirational but also apolitical enough for Bedrich to accept.
Magda persuades Bedrich to take up another ‘national’ project as a return favour, and all goes well for a while, until a candid disclosure in a radio interview by Fabera lands them in hot water with the establishment, after which both families’ privileges get curtailed. However, Fabera also succeeds in getting Bedrich noticed by art establishments outside Czechoslovakia, and before long, Bedrich will have foreign admirers arriving at his doorstep…
A slice of life as seen by the director during the pre-Velvet Revolution days, the film, much like most Czech films made in the period following communism, presents the picture of an intelligentsia desperately yearning for change. It remains a popular subject for Czechs to this day, and the film duly obliges. But it is also a breezy, well made comedy that directly addresses its audience – one of the reasons for its box office success. While I couldn’t yet make a connection between the film’s title – alluding to a prank game played using a coin, and the film’s context, it is nevertheless entertaining, and Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Vilma Cibulková and Hana Seidlová
In a memorable scene, Magda, who is visiting Bedrich’s to oversee an upcoming sculpture, is in the shower when she hears Bedrich say that he wants to abandon the work. She angrily bursts into the studio and starts arguing with him in the nude. Forty year old Vilma Cibulková was brave enough to do the scene, and it reminded me of another more recent performance by Anne Louise Hassing, also in her forties – it’s so uplifting to watch middle-aged women walk about just as nature intended, in the nude. The second scene is of Mila’s son Matej eyeing a woman sunbathing, only to pleasantly discover that she’s also his teacher from school. The teacher is played by Hana Seidlová.