'Dark Blue World': War and Uneasy Peace

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The Czech Republic's formidable father-and-son filmmaking team of director Jan Sverak and his father Zdenek--a veteran actor and screenwriter, whose endearing "Kolya" won the foreign-language film Oscar in 1997--has returned with a sweeping, classic-style World War II epic, "Dark Blue World." In essence it has the same plot as "Pearl Harbor": Ace fliers fall for the same woman. But here there's an exceedingly bitter twist in its framing story.

It's 1950 in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, where a war hero, Franta (Ondrej Vetchy), is having a brief respite from harsh prison life in an infirmary under the care of a notably humane former member of Germany's SS, Dr. Blaschke (Hans-Jorg Assmann), who is treating him for pneumonia.

If this situation is ironic, even more so is that Franta was among a group of brave Czechs who served in Britain's Royal Air Force to free their country from Nazi rule, only to find themselves incarcerated and sentenced to hard labor by the Communists. The Communists fear that the former fliers' contact with British-style democracy and freedom might cause them to lead a rebellion. While recuperating, Franta thinks back to 1939, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and how he and his Czech air force comrades made their way to England. Once there, the thirtysomething Franta takes under his wing Karel (Krystof Hadek), an innocent kid who looks to be no more than 17 or 18.

When Karel's plane is shot down and he parachutes to safety not far from the air base where he and Franta are stationed, he is given shelter by the beautiful Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), who is caring for a group of children evacuated from England's big cities in her spacious country home.

Her husband is off at war, and under the dire pressures and the uncertainties of the time, Susan relieves Karel of his virginity, inadvertently triggering in him an all-consuming first love. But when Karel introduces Franta to Susan, she immediately realizes she needs a man, not a boy. Not wanting to hurt Karel, Franta and Susan try to resist each other but to no avail.

The Sveraks present their triangle with sensitivity and compassion, but their narrative is unnecessarily protracted and conventional. For quite a stretch, the film flip-flops between dogfights in the air and boudoir skirmishes on the ground.

Once the Sveraks establish this pattern, they repeat it needlessly when they ought to be linking up more substantially to the grim 1950 present. That lingers at the back of the viewer's mind, filling it with a sense of impending dread.

In short, "Dark Blue World" could benefit substantially from some adroit trimming. When the film belatedly begins to spend more time in its present, it picks up considerably, causing us to wonder what happened to Karel and to Franta and Susan's clandestine romance.

As it stands, "Dark Blue World"--for all the considerable skills of the Sveraks and their colleagues on both sides of the camera--occupies that treacherous territory between art film and popular epic.

As good as the aerial sequences are, they are not all that exciting by Hollywood standards set way back with "Hell's Angels" (1930) and continued most notably with "The Blue Max" (1966). On the other hand, the film's nuances, its uncompromising bleakness and its Eastern European sense of life's cruel absurdities give it a sophistication quite a few cuts above mainstream fare.

Some smart editing might well make all the difference with "Dark Blue World," which is the Czech Republic's official Oscar entry for foreign-language film.

*

MPAA rating: R, for sexuality/nudity. Times guidelines: Lovemaking is presented candidly but not exploitatively; there are also depictions of wartime casualties and the effects of prison brutality.

'Dark Blue World'

Ondrej Vetchy ... Frantisek (Franta) Slama

Krystof Hadek ... Karel Vojtisek

Tara Fitzgerald ... Susan

Charles Dance ... Wing Commander Bentley

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Portobello Pictures/Biograf/Jan Sverak film in co-production with Helkon Media/ Phoenix Film Investments/Fandango and Czech Television. Director Jan Sverak. Producers Eric Abraham and Sverak. Screenplay Zdenek Sverak. Camera Vladimir Smutny. Editor Alois Fisarek. Music Ondrej Soukup. Production designer Jan Vlasak. Art director Vaclav Novak. In English and Czech, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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