Záhrada (1995), like Martin Šulík’s previous film, Všetko čo mam rád, is perhaps best watched on one of those seemingly never-ending sultry evenings in the height of a hot summer. Then you’ll be poised to recall most poignantly what it was like to be in the depths of a long school holiday from your early childhood: unlimited time; not a great deal to do; a corresponding fascination with the beauty of the small things (the heavy scent of pollen, building a treehouse, fishing for tadpoles in the local stream).
In such a state of mind, Záhrada makes most sense. Its main character, Jakub, is not dissimilar to protagonist Tomás in Všetko čo mam rád: a thirty-something for whom life seems directionless, living with his father in their cramped flat, having an affair with a married woman, in a job he cares little for, whiling away days without formulating any specific plans.
The film opens with a woman calling at his father’s flat to have a shirt repaired (his father is a tailor). Whilst his father mends it, the woman (who transpires to be Tereza, the one Jakub is sleeping with) begins to ravish Jakub there and then in the next room, but his father walks in in the middle of the foreplay, understandably incensed, and tells Jakub (we sense this is the last straw in a series of straws) to leave and get his own place. Or more specifically, he tells him to sell the old garden that Jakub’s grandfather used to have and buy a flat with the proceeds.
Garden, it should be clarified, is záhrada in Slovak. And unsurprisingly, given it is the title of the movie, Jakub, upon journeying out to the garden to check it out, soon decides it is not something he wishes to sell.
The garden in question is a rather overgrown, rambling plot of land far out in the middle of the countryside, with a small cottage on the premises where Jakub’s grandfather previously lived. Our protagonist soon falls in love with the place and its decrepit charms, and with the lazy rural life that goes with it. He is accustomed to being a city dweller, however, and experiences his fair share of problems with consequences of country life he was utterly unprepared for.
For starters, the garden and cottage are in a poor state of repair, and Jakub is none too good with repairs. Then there are the bizarre characters that live nearby: not least the beautiful but slightly crazy Helena with whom Jakub (pretty rapidly) develops a crush on. Perhaps most interestingly, there is the gradual trade-off he makes, sacrificing city life for a rustic one. Like many things in Jakub’s life, this process happens to him rather than because of any conscious decision he makes. A family that need to get to a wedding take his car; the school he teaches at informs him they no longer need his services after his protracted stay in the záhrada continues into term time. Some aspects of city life remain more difficult to shake off: namely Tereza whose presence increasingly annoys Jakub.
There is no place for the trappings of the city in the garden, because the garden is a bastion of the beautiful and inexplicable, where it is the minute and the fragile, the understated and the curious, which become the biggest surprises. Helena becomes Jakub’s initiator into this world (showing him how to deal with stray dogs, how to get cured by ants) – a world in which Jakub ends up losing material possessions but gaining inner happiness (a healthy relationship, a better relationship with his father, a purpose).
Many Slovak films have as a hallmark a reality that traps the viewer by its intensity. The buzzing of bees, a device often employed, and the chirrup of grasshoppers veritably brings the simple laziness of a summer’s day in the country through the screen in Záhrada. And Jakub, on many levels, is an intensely real character. He falls into muddy holes, he bumbles, he makes mistakes, he is clumsy. On one level, though, he is extraordinary: in his ability to let things take their course with almost no protest whatsoever (just with the odd glance of bewildered wonderment). A strange intruder appears in his garden with a flock of sheep and Jakub is unfazed (he even washes the man’s feet and listens to his somewhat crazed life story). He goes to sleep by a campfire and wakes up with a strange man embracing him and he is equally unfazed. This trait of Jakub’s is what allows the magic into Záhrada. It is allowed to seep into the film in an earthed way, but nevertheless it does seep, and in turn this is what makes it such touching and unique piece of cinema. (The subtle mannerisms of Jakub and Helena, the quirky cameos of the family en route to the wedding or of the whimsical real estate agent looking to purchase the land, and of course, the magic of the garden itself, where mirror writing is the language that unlocks secrets that have been buried there for many years).
This magic does not affect the fluidity of the film (in some Slovak movies the common magic or fairytale element disrupts the continuity) and indeed, at the very end (where the scene depicted above happens) cements its place amidst Jakub’s garden, when Helena levitates and Jakub’s father exclaims: “now everything is as it should be”.
Záhrada is such a roller coaster of the small and serendipitous that even outlining the plot in no way spoils the film. The surprises of this garden cannot all be put into words. You’ll have to watch it to see why this is one of the very best post-1989 Slovak movies – and, along with Báthory (2008), the most famous.
NB: Záhrada didn’t get Oscar-nominated like Všetko čo mam rád but its success was recognised when it won the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.