Films from storied history

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Your filmgoing experiences these days might involve catching up with all the Oscar-nominated films. Once you’ve seen what Hollywood has to offer, though, you might think about giving Prague a look. The Lions of Czech Film series offers District film fans a movie a month until June.

The Embassy of the Czech Republic has partnered with the Avalon Theatre to present critical and popular hits that might otherwise not be seen here. These films have limited distribution in the U.S., but the Czech film industry has a long and storied history.

Czechoslovakia’s movie business took off after World War I. “Ecstasy” (“Ekstase”) introduced a 19-year-old Hedy Lamarr in a risque role in 1933. Brothers Milos and Vaclav Havel — the latter the father of the playwright and former Czech president of the same name — completed construction on Barrandov Studios that same year. It was nationalized just after World War II (before even the banks or mines), but that didn’t hurt film production. The studios are still in use today. Nicknamed the “Hollywood of the East,” Barrandov provided studio facilities for the recent films “Casino Royale,” “The Illusionist” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

It was in the freer air of the 1960s that the real golden age of Czechoslovak film occurred, though. Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ “The Shop on Main Street” (“Obchod na korze”) and Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains” (“Ostre sledovane vlaky”), both Barrandov productions, won the Oscars for best foreign language film in 1965 and 1967, respectively.

That creative flowering was brought to an abrupt end when the Soviets invaded in August 1968. State control over the film industry now meant something more sinister. Filmmakers who remained in the country, like Mr. Menzel, were forbidden from making films for several years. Others, like Mr. Kadar, went into exile.

Not for the first time, Central Europe’s artistic loss was to be Hollywood’s gain.

Another emigre was director Milos Forman, two of whose Barrandov productions had garnered Oscar nominations in the 1960s: “Loves of a Blonde” (“Lasky jedne plavovlasky”) and “Firemen’s Ball” (“Hori, ma panenko”). Mr. Forman fled to New York, became a film professor at Columbia and released “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975. The film earned him a best director Oscar; so did 1984’s “Amadeus.” (His upcoming film, “Goya’s Ghosts,” is about the Spanish painter and an earlier attempt to eradicate dissent: the Spanish Inquisition.)

After the Velvet Revolution ended communism in Czechoslovakia, Barrandov Studios was privatized and a new generation of filmmakers came to the fore. The country is almost back to its 1960s high of about 25 to 30 films produced each year. Considering that the country was split in two in 1993, that’s not bad.

Important names include Sasa Gedeon, David Ondricek, Jan Sverak and Petr Zelenka — all of whom are represented in the Avalon’s series. Mr. Sverak’s “Elementary School” (“Obecna skola”) was nominated for a best foreign language Oscar, and his film “Kolya” (“Kolja”) won the 1996 award. Jan Hrebejk’s “Divided We Fall” got a nomination in the category for 2000.

Each of the five films in the Avalon series, all showing at 8 p.m., has won at least one Czech Lion Award, the country’s equivalent to the Oscar.

On Feb. 13, Avalon screens the darkly satirical “Wild Bees” (“Divoke vcely”), Bohdan Slama’s 2001 debut. Reminiscent of Czech New Wave, the film explores a Prague resident’s return to the Moravian village of his youth.

“Year of the Devil” (“Rok Dabla”), described as a Czech “This Is Spinal Tap,” shows on March 14. The fusion of fact and fiction follows a folk star and a band of funeral musicians. Mr. Zelenka’s film won 6 Czech Lions, including best film, and was the top-grossing Czech film of 2002.

On April 11, Zdenek Tyc’s “Brats” (“Smradi”) screens. This film explores the ingrained intolerance toward the Romany (Gypsies) in the Czech countryside through the story of one family that leaves Prague to find a better life for their adopted Romany sons and asthma-afflicted birth son.

“One Hand Can’t Clap” (“Jedna ruka netleska”) is showing on May 9. Mr. Ondricek’s black comedy follows Standa, who served prison time for his boss and now wants some payback.

“Return of the Idiot” (“Navrat idiota”) closes out the series on June 13. Mr. Gedeon’s 1999 film, which won six Czech Lions, including best film, features a modern-day version of Dostoyevsky’s hero. Frantisek, recently released from the mental hospital where he’s spent most of his life, tries to assimilate into mainstream society, unwittingly uncovering hypocrisy along the way.

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