Silný kafe (Bitter Coffee), 2004, directed by Bőrkur Gunnarsson


Silný kafe is a precise, intelligent, amusing psychological study of relations between young people, Czech and international, in the context of a well-established post-communist society, which displays certain characteristic, ingrained features. The behaviour of the characters is authentic and carefully observed. The director is an Icelander who graduated from the CzechFilm Academy (FAMU) in Prague. In spite of its good qualities, the film received a cool reaction from Czech audiences. They mostly found this film “a bit too foreign”.

Silný kafe takes place amongst filmmakers and actors. It concentrates on the behaviour of two young couples. David, the selfish neurotic film director is perhaps the most interesting and controversial character in the film. He displays a fairly common attitude which can be characterised as a “incessant vigilance” vis-a-vis the outside world. (It is maybe interesting that a Czech reviewer said that David was the “nicest” character in the film).

David makes caustic remarks on everything. His defensively arrogant attitude is a manifestation of an internal weakness. He needs to control the world around him. He is on guard and constantly keeps checking whether the situation around him is favourable and whether it is possible to manipulate it for his profit. David approaches reality with a pre-conceived suspicion that everything is, as he sees it, second rate. The fact that he has asthma increases his inner insecurity. But it is possible to detect cruelty beyond his weakness and vigilance. At the beginning of the film, David is watching a video game and is seized with a fit of laughter when one boxer cruelly beats up another. David´s girlfriend Renata is quite stunned by this. Renata is a young, relaxed, capable girl who is only finding her way about in the world and learning about things. During the film she realises that her relationship with David was a mistake.

The film director and Honza, his producer, have another characteristic fault in common. Both always put their personal interest and comfort before their professional duties. At the beginning of the film, Honza finds David watching television during working hours when he should have been writing a script. Typically, David reassures Honza saying there´s no problem, it´s normal, everything is fine.

Honza uses his influence to employ his girlfriend in the film crew as a boom operator. David complains bitterly that she is not up to the job, but then he discovers that she was appointed as a result of nepotism, when Honza explains to him in an embarrassing scene “She is my friend!” None of them is surprised by this; both of them take nepotism as a normal state of affairs.

The other young couple in the film – the Egyptian woman Maya and the Croatian Tomislav do not get on, either. Fighting with each other, they violently transfer negative emotions on each other in dramatic scenes. The film shows how people hurt each other because they think only of themselves. But unlike the relationship between David and Renata, the relationship of Maya and Tomislav does have a future: although when they fight they say they hate each other, they are passionately in love with each other.

Honza´s father (Jiří Lábus) is also insensitively self-centred. His is a caricature of an aging man. Honza´s mother has a subtle, intellectual, “philosophical” relationship with young man Láďa, the “lover of silence” and of books. They discuss literature at the kitchen table while Honza´s father sits at the back, watches television and keeps commenting on everything in a jovial and rather limited fashion. Gunnarsson shows that partner relationships are dead after twenty or thirty years of marriage. Honza´s mother is frustrated by her husband. Her frustration comes from the kind of man her husband is. Although she had chosen him as her life partner many years ago, he would hardly have been more intelligent in his behaviour in his youth.

The portraits of women are more penetrating than the portraits of men in this film. Women have much more versatile and sensitive personalities than their simple, self-centred male partners. Renata, sensible, unpretentious and normal, is perhaps the most attractive character in the film. She goes out with the neurotic selfish David at the beginning of the film only because she has not as yet sorted out her personal value system. Renata tells Maya, undoubtedly under the pressure of the value system of the conteporary Czech Republic: “I could forgive a boy if he was unfaithful to me, but I could not forgive him if he was a nobody.” Towards the end of the film, she probably would not say such a thing, it seems that she does realise that sensitive understanding between partners is the highest value in life.

In a Chekhovian manner, the film trundles along and it seems that nothing ever happens. The Czech girl Renata and the Egyptian girl Maya run into each other in the street after many years. They decide to take their partners on an outing to Český Šternberk where they once both went to school. Their lovers do not want to go: Tomislav does not see why he should be leaving his Prague pub and his pals. David hates the countryside and wants to remain in town. When he eventually does go, he assumes the role of martyr.

During the journey and the voyage in canoes along the river Sázava the relationship btween the four young people crystallises. The situations are amusing, but at the same time they are a serious analysis of interhuman relations. David´s neurotic monologues are quite witty – Martin Hoffmann has created a convincing character of a repulsively self-centered young man.

The derelict school building in Český Šternberk has been purchased by an elderly Icelander. It so happens that Honza´s parents live in the town as well. And it turns out that several years ago, Honza was Renata´s first boyfriend, which provokes mad fits of jealousy in David.

The film ends has a “happy ending” – Renata realises that her relationship with the authoritative David was wrong and creates a new bond with the romanic “lover of silence” Láďa, who has a “literary den” in Český Šternberk. At an unguarded moment, Láďa gives Renata a clumsy kiss. She follows him. The undressing scene during which Láďa reads Renata passages from his favourite books and tears out each page after reading it while Renata pays for each torn-out page by taking off one article of her clothing has a magically romantic charge.

It is obvious where the sympathies of the director lie: he is against selfishness and he does not like the self-centred, defensive, individualist attitude of many in the contemporary Czech Republic. The girl at the end of the film is won by the man who deserves her most – the sensitive romantic and idealist Láďa – a highly unusual viewpoint.