Updating a popular children's fable, leading Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer's latest is a compelling and highly contemporary social satire. Inventively combining live action with characteristically macabre stop-motion animation, Svankmajer's fourth feature, after "Alice", "Faust", and "Conspirators of Pleasure", may also be his best.
Infertile parents Bozena (Zilková) and Karel (Hartl) Horák seemingly find a humorous solution to their malaise when an unwitting Karel digs up a tree stump which physically resembles a young baby. After some brief cosmetics, Karel presents it to his inconsolable wife, hoping it may provide temporary comfort.
However, his wife Bozena takes the gift too much to heart, faking the symptoms of pregnancy and mollycoddling the monstrous 'child' they christen Otík, until it develops a life and hunger all of its own.
Otík's insatiable appetite arouses the interest of Alzbìtka, the Horáks' precocious young neighbour who, though aware of the old Otesánek folk tale concerning a gluttonous, cannibalistic freak of nature, is desperate for a friend to call her own.
The director describes the film as touching on one of the most basic myths of civilization: the myth of Adam and Eve and the tampering with the natural order, for which the protagonists must pay a terrible price.
This concern informs much of Svankmajer's work (he's an old hand at updating traditional myths and legends), but here it's taken to perhaps its most satisfying metaphorical conclusion. Svankmajer's interest in the basest human physical activities and obsessions (particularly eating and greed) also recurs to both horrific and amusing effect.
In many ways Svankmajer is without peer in contemporary cinema, though David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam are possible points of popular reference.
Wonderfully performed (Veronika Zilková shades the acting honours) and executed, "Little Otík" reaffirms the director's reputation as one of cinema's true pioneers.
In Czech with English subtitles.