The lush memories of a libertine imp

Posted: September 05, 2008

The puckish Jan Dite, whose surname means "child" in Czech, is a slapstick imp out of a Charlie Chaplin comedy. In 1930s Prague, the modest hot dog vendor dreams - immodestly, perhaps absurdly - of becoming a millionaire.

Through the political earthquakes of fascism and communism that will rock his homeland to its foundations, Jan remains the unshakable optimist. Infantilized by successive totalitarian regimes, the childlike creature attends primarily to his appetites for sex and food.

While I Served the King of England, Jiri Menzel's delicious confection about the resilient Czech character, tastes like a bittersweet chocolate souffle, it's much more substantial than dessert.

Despite Jan's diminutive stature and humble origins, this sprite with the blond shock of hair is catnip for women and a magnet for money. No matter the mortal storms and political riptides he encounters, Jan is a buoy who bobs safely to the surface.

For Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, My Sweet Little Village), the Czech filmmaker who adapted the novel by his countryman Bohumil Hrabal, Jan's political obliviousness is both his making and unmaking.

Endearingly played by Bulgarian charmer Ivan Barnev, Jan is a sunbeam undimmed by political storms, Candide's cousin in the former Czechoslovakia. As Hitler ravishes Europe through intimidation and jackboots, gentle Jan conquers European women with his boyish smile and a strategic garnish of rose petals.

With equal parts ribaldry and revelry, Menzel tells the story of the manchild who rises from street vendor to waiter to hotelier.

If not fully naked, every blonde is clad in something gauzy and photographed through honeyed light.

Improbably, every meal served is juicier, every banquet more delectable than even the voluptuous blondes.

Impossibly, every marbled interior is more sumptuous than even the food.

These are the alluring memories that the elder Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) looks back on in the 1960s when he reflects upon a life that involved many disenchanting acts, including collaboration with fascists and betrayal of Jewish friends. If somebody told me in advance how moving I would find a film about a Nazi collaborator, I would not have believed them.

While the film's unhelpful title would indicate that Jan waited on British royalty, in fact, that's the claim made by the courtly maitre d' for whom he works. Jan serves the emperor of Ethiopia.

Finally, does Jan learn anything from a career that begins in the heart of Prague and ends at his nation's frontier, at what looks literally and figuratively like the end of the road? Perhaps not. But we do.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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