Autumn Spring (Babi Leto)

After seeing Autumn Spring, the reasoning for the film’s awkward title becomes clear. Its protagonist is a sweet, irrepressible 76-year-old who acts more like a wry teenager than a tired soul wasting away his sunset years. For one thing, the codger delights in playing pranks. The film’s opening shot is of a majestic, if crumbling, European mansion. A real estate agent shows the property to a stuffy, precise old gentleman, a retired orchestra conductor, who tours the premises with his nattily attired secretary. Dickering over 5 million, the maestro puts off the deal for a few weeks, and the agent’s limousine drops the prospective buyers off at their luxury hotel.

So much for the big sale: The next scene shows the two fellows at a subway station, congratulating each other for a job well done. The guys aren’t really emeritus members of the art world, they’re pensioners who did a little acting in their day and still enjoy the rush of pretending — and putting something over on an unsuspecting victim.

Meanwhile, back at his clean yet modest apartment in a cement block highrise, Fanda’s (the "conductor’s") grandkids and son have been waiting for hours to celebrate his birthday with him. But by the time he gets home, they’re gone. The conciliatory bouquet Fanda brings his understandably grumpy wife doesn’t quite work to placate her. She knows his game.

The estate buying scam is only the first in a host of adorable tricks Fanda pulls off in this funny, poignant — but never sappy — award-winning film from the Czech Republic directed by Vladimir Michalek and written by Jiri Hubac. Fanda also convinces a stranger at a cemetery that he’s an old friend, and a successful mountain climber to boot. Or he and Ed pose as train ticket agents, eliciting innocent kisses from sweet, young women they cite for having insufficient fare.

Vlastimil Brodsk� as Fanda is utterly transcendent in the part, which was written specifically for him by his old friend Hubac, and which, sadly, turned out to be his last role. A pillar of Czech theater in the 1950’s who went on to appear in art films of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, Brodsk� concludes his career on a powerful, yet bittersweet and ironic, note. Not having fully recovered from a stroke the previous year, he committed suicide in May 2002.

But his Fanda is unforgettable. His quiet, understated performance bursts with charm and not theatrics, and that’s why he’s undeniably real when he’s playing tricks on friends and strangers, and even more so when he’s not. With no sentimentality and never being cute, Brodsk� pulls off what so easily could be an unbelievable character: an old guy with a keen zest for life, and someone who takes pleasure in helping people. Always good-hearted, he even comes clean about his gags, and is willing to pay for expenses incurred.

As his cohort Ed, Stanislav Zindulka displays the same kind of nuanced joy that Brodsk� embodies, though he is most remarkable in a sad, emotional scene where the men admit that their age has caught up with them. It’s a tearjerker. As they commiserate over their various ailments, Ed tells Fanda that their relationship, and his dog, are the only things he lives for.

Death is on the mind of Fanda’s wife Emilie (Stella Zazvorkova, another veteran of Czech theater), who meticulously plans for her funeral and stores the finances for it in neatly arranged canisters on a shelf in the dining room. In the movie’s loudest, least sympathetic role, Zazvorkova complements Brodsk� beautifully. Yet her nagging is justifiable as her frustration escalates when her husband continues to spend their hard-saved income on frivolities – even if she’s not sure of their exact nature.

Director Michalek wisely keeps the pace steady and gentle throughout, and he focuses the camera squarely on the actors’ responsive, reflective, wrinkled faces. Autumn Spring, a fun movie about and for old people, also happens to be a movie that young people won’t be able to resist.

– Leslie Katz