Olmo Omerzu’s deceptively breezy, deadpan drama feels like Succession via Sophocles, as the attempts of an aging CEO of a failing company to get to the bottom of crippling debts are undercut by the philosophical musings of some strangely omnipresent feathered friends. Bird Atlas may come across as among the more low-stakes efforts of recent anti-capitalist drama (see Dark Waters for the other end of this scale), but there’s a real beating, compassionate heart for the average joe, or joan, at its core.
Ivo (Miroslav Donutil) is the patriarch of electronics company Aron. A worrying propensity for heart attacks should have led to him stepping down some years ago. However, the veteran captain of industry doesn’t seem to have enough faith in his son Martin (Martin Pechlát) and son-in-law David (Vojtech Kotek) to hand on the reins. He feels he’s made the right decision as he discovers some financial irregularities in the company’s books that point toward systematic long-term embezzlement. The discovery does cause another coronary, but he’s soon back on his feet, shuffling indomitably towards finding a culprit.
Omerzu weaves various strands together in an impressive way. Ivo’s health adds urgency to his search, while Omerzu pulls the rug at every turn. It’s pretty clear that our sympathies aren’t intended to lie with the ailing businessman. Instead, we’re drawn towards the emerging suspect, Ivo’s put-upon secretary (and former lover) Marie (Alena Mihulová). She’s taken time off work at suspiciously the same time as the missing money has been flagged. She’s preoccupied with setting up a new life with her American internet boyfriend, which of course isn’t cheap. Omerzu also breaks off to show us mysterious grainy footage of soldiers on detail. And there’s also those birds. The chirps and hoots of Prague’s avian residents are frequently translated, and if this airborne Greek chorus aren’t commenting on the foolish endeavours of the human protagonists, they’re delivering various philosophical musings such as, “Without family, one shivers in the infinite cosmos.” Indeed.
Somehow, for the most part it works. The military footage could easily be trimmed, as it breaks up the flow unnecessarily and relates to another narrative element that gets addressed elsewhere. But apart from that, the various twists and revelations aren’t undermined by the curious magical realist device. Rather, it adds an ironic distance to proceedings from which the film’s gently comic atmosphere is derived. It can be argued that this distance lessens the film’s impact when it does attempt to harden its socialist leanings into a narrative stance, leaving its message as somewhat ‘for the birds’ you could say. What it does do is snuff out any hint of melodrama, which given where the story goes, is a wise move.
The performances are uniformly strong, especially Donutil and Mihulová as Ivo and Marie. Theirs is the real thematic relationship; the unbalanced power dynamic between employer and employee. Within that, and dealt with deftly, is the former relationship between the two with the further imbalance of their economic circumstances added to that. Some questionable decisions are made by both parties, but Omerzu (and the birds) are under no doubt who the victim is here. Cinematographer Lukás Milota boxy framing captures corporate blandness with aplomb and Monika Midriaková provides and anxious score that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film. It’s lightness of touch is both its strength and its weakness – bypassing sentiment but keeping us at a dramatic remove – but unlike the sagacious owl who’s part of the wise chorus, you probably won’t give a hoot in the moment.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022