Light as a Feather


In his younger days the Czech film director Jiří Menzel was a tightrope walker, once giving moviegoers a glimpse of his skill when he played an acrobat in his own Capricious Summer (1968). Back then he walked another kind of tightrope, a political one, by making movies, such as Larks on a String, that satirized the Communist state. Forced to recant, he toppled into the safety net of apolitical filmmaking. Now, with I Served the King of England, he has made something exquisite about the perils of being apolitical at a time when politics saturates everything. This film doesn’t claim any moral superiority for political engagement, but simply offers a warning: if all your attention is on getting and spending, it will be hard to notice the political steamroller behind you, until it begins to flatten you.

Based on a novel by Menzel’s late collaborator and friend, Bohumil Hrabal (who wrote the director’s classic first feature, Closely Watched Trains), I Served the King of England tells the story of Jan Díte, a humble street vendor in Prague who one day learns a startling truth when he drops some coins in the street and sees some prosperous citizens scramble to pick them up. Apparently, money has magnetic properties and can yank even the most dignified to their knees. So, he himself will dance attendance on those who toss cash his way. After all, better to dance than to grovel. And...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.