Non Plus Ultras is a new Czech film that hit cinemas here this week providing a new look at a phenomenon not often examined here: the phenomenon of football hooliganism. Focusing on several characters' daily lives that revolve around one's favourite team, beer, women, and all things English, Ultras, however, is far from a scathing look at the underbelly of the football world one might expect. Instead, it is a character study - at times a comic and even gentle one at that - of a small group of friends, who, while hooligans, are really only minor players at best.
A storyline based on football hooliganism and football antics almost immediately raises expectations of kitchen-sink imagery and cutting social criticism reminiscent of 1970s cinema, and although Non Plus Ultras occasionally provides a touch of the former - well-framed imagery of some of North Moravia's tougher industrial zones - well, criticism it is not.
What "Ultras" does prove to be very early on is a carefully-crafted comedy with some moments of truly inspirational filmmaking, not least the film's opening sequence in a maternity ward.
"Goo goo, ga ga!"
In the ward the camera pans over the innocent faces of babies and we learn intuitively this will be a story of several characters, each of whom will turn out a little different than we might expect. By the time the grown figures appear on screen we already know some of the character's nicknames: "Diver", "Doggy", and "Skinny".
Meanwhile, the fascination with things British - one of the film's central motifs - is stressed by the film's soundtrack, which includes a famous corker by the loudest rock band ever, Great Britain's The Who.
"Whhhooo are yooouuu...? Tell me who are you!"
"Who are you?" is one of the central questions the film asks of its characters including its lead, "Beefy", a man too old to be kicking around stadiums anymore, too old and frankly too intelligent, to still be looking for fights with opposing fans. Played by the excellent David Novotny, his driving need is to find a way out, says Non Plus Ultra's director Jakub Sluka:
But, getting out isn't easy. Even when a possibility of love presents itself as a means of escape, the film remains planted in reality, and it is one of Beefy's friends, the mercurial Skinny, who makes off with the girl instead, showing us, indeed, that this time there won't be a Hollywood ending.
But no room for tragedy either. Instead, satire comes to a head.
The film's moment of blackest comedy is a scathing portrayal of two English rowdies that the Czech group of friends have invited to Prague out of blindest admiration and awe.
"Where the f*** have you been?"
"Yes, beer, yes."
"Smells like piss!"
"Tastes like piss!"
Two such complete idiots have rarely graced a Czech screen, characters outrageously portrayed by two actors from Great Britain, one of them the Prague-based John Early.
"The directions consisted mostly of 'drunk', 'really drunk', 'really, really drunk', or, for a change, 'sober' in one scene. And that was pretty much it!"
The English rowdies are so over the top - so farcical - they eventually grow to disgust their Czech counterparts, who are forced to question their allegiances and their obsession with hooliganism over all.
In a moment of hilarious catharsis when realisation finally dawns, one of the Czech characters takes down a picture of the Queen, wondering what it is he's been doing all along.
The question to be asked now is: 'How did it come to this?'
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