11 January 2024
Ondřej Hudeček, who garnered international acclaim with his Sundance-winning short Peacock, continues to push the boundaries of storytelling in his feature-length fiction debut, the “small-town COVID western” Little Thief. An ingenious concoction of social drama and heist comedy, the film is infused with the director’s signature dark humor, eclectic genre-bending, and subversive narrative tropes, telling a story of family dynamics and personal crises in a band of petty thieves amid the biggest health crisis of the 21st century.
Written by Martin Kudláč for CZECH FILM / Spring 2024
Ondřej Hudeček stands out amid the current wave of talented Czech filmmakers making their mark with fiction feature debuts. The emerging talent first caught the international film community’s attention with his breakout short, Peacock (2015). A daring fusion of black comedy, bio-pic elements, and queer romance, Peacock earned him the Special Jury Award for Best Direction at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. This acclaim catapulted Hudeček onto the global stage, leading to his direction of the Olympic Channel’s The Nagano Tapes: Rewound, Replayed & Reviewed (2018). A documentary exploring the Czech Republic’s celebrated 1998 hockey victory, the work garnered the Czech Film Critics’ Award, further solidifying Hudeček’s reputation.
Now, his feature-length fiction debut, Little Thief, promises to showcase his penchant for genre-bending narrative and dark humor. Set in Moravia, the heist movie ingeniously transposes American genre conventions into a Czech context, set against a backdrop of tragicomic social drama.
The story of Little Thief follows a man named Luboš Sochor, who goes by the nickname Lupyn. After a stint in prison, he robs a brewery owner in his hometown, the very same man who offers him a second chance at a normal life. In fact, however, the robbery is a clever ruse that enables the owner to avert bankruptcy thanks to an insurance claim. Set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 lockdowns, a period marked by struggle for small businesses, as Lupyn and his motley crew of petty thieves embark on a series of insurance frauds, the “pandemic of crime” becomes a lifeline for local businesses that are teetering on the brink. Naturally, the gang charges a fee for their services.
Hudeček’s narrative captures a community on the edge, with traditional boundaries of right and wrong becoming ambiguous due to the extraordinary circumstances. The pandemic, in Hudeček’s vision, transcends a mere health crisis, revealing societal undercurrents and prompting profound reflections on human nature and morality. The screenplay of Little Thief, by Hudeček and his usual cowriter Jan Smutný, offers a unique and unexpected fusion of genres. Spanning comedy, tragedy, heist, crime, satire, family drama, social commentary, and even elements of western, it’s a seamless amalgamation of diverse storytelling elements and styles.
By setting the story in Strážnice, his hometown, the director enriches the film with authentic experiences and the local dialect of Moravia. In fact the Moravian vernacular, far from being a mere linguistic embellishment, emerges as a significant element, a vessel for cultural identity.
Here Hudeček, known for his eclectic style, seamlessly blends disparate elements, subverting tropes and genre norms—although he says he toned down the formalistic flair and stylistic exhibitionism in order to foreground the narrative. Drawing from his experience in shorts, Hudeček takes charge of both cinematography and editing, crafting a visual language that is at once intricate and direct.
The film’s visual storytelling strikes a balance of formal techniques. Composed shots depict the quaint, static life of a small town, capturing the essence of a picturesque community. On the other hand, handheld sequences, dolly shots, and montage give the film a raw, immediate quality, so the audience experiences the characters’ emotions up close.
Describing his cinematic technique as a departure from the complex aesthetics of Peacock, Hudeček opts this time out for widescreen and dynamic scenes. He draws comparisons to Ocean’s Eleven and Logan Lucky, yet his rendition is grittier, offering an ironic, slightly parodic twist on Hollywood storytelling. The film not only plays with crime and heist genre tropes, but also gives a subtle nod to Westerns, echoing the Coen brothers’ Fargo and Blood Simple. The adaptation of quintessentially American genres into a Czech milieu captured the attention of the Czech Film Fund board, who noted its potential to appeal to wide audiences.
In its cast, Little Thief features Matyáš Řezníček, a rising talent introduced in Borders of Love. Hudeček points out that Řezníček’s portrayal of Lupyn perfectly plays up the character’s blend of unlawful behavior and moral integrity. The film’s small-town gang, on the other hand, is comprised of actors native to Strážnice, including Lukáš Příkazký (The Seven Ravens) and Petr Borovec (LOVEhunt), who share a long-standing camaraderie with Hudeček from their youth. Filip Kaňkovský (Ordinary Failures) rounds out the group of hapless robbers and small-town misfits, bringing an authentic bond to their on-screen BFF dynamics.
Václav Neužil, celebrated for his star turn in the Emil Zátopek bio-pic (Zatopek), here portrays the local police chief Čenda, a character with morally ambiguous undertones. Neužil’s performance is laced with humor as he depicts the cop involved in both Lupyn’s imprisonment and an affair with his mother, Ilona, played by Eva Vrbková. Vrbková is protective and overbearing, pushing her son towards elusive maturity while investigating the town’s curious string of robberies.
Amid this concoction of genres, Little Thief addresses the topic of masculinity in a manner at once critical and comedic. Dissecting men’s traditional roles in society and the often-dysfunctional systems that arise from these outdated archetypes, the film satirizes the bravado and pretense in male-dominated environments, from local mafia dynamics to the existential crises of middle-aged men. Hudeček’s narrative critically examines the challenges young men face in reconciling these roles with personal growth.
Denisa Barešová (Her Body), starring as Lupyn’s friend and love interest, serves as the film’s moral compass, while Stanislav Majer (Snake Gas) adds layers of risk and complexity in playing the role of the local “mafia” boss. The cast is rounded out by Slovak actors Ján Jackuliak and Milan Mikulčík, with Mikulčík as the brewery owner, the most mature male character in the film, who serves as a father figure for the protagonist. Hudeček’s use of nonprofessional local actors for extras in Little Thief is distinctive, lending an authentic community feel to the film.
Little Thief is a project of nutprodukce, recognized for its recent award-winning and festival-circuit-trotting films, including Tony, Shelly and the Magic Light (2023) and Mr. and Mrs. Stodola (2023), as well as its high-end television productions, featured at international festivals, including Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush (2013), Wasteland (2016), and Suspicion (2022), the first series from Central and Eastern Europe ever selected for the Berlinale Series section. The Slovak branch of the company, nutprodukcia, coproduced the film alongside Czech Television. Financial support for the project derives from several sources, including the Czech Film Fund, the Slovak Audiovisual Fund, and, in a nod to the film’s regional roots, the South Moravian Film Fund. Additionally, the production garnered European support from Eurimages and Creative Europe MEDIA, signaling its s appeal beyond Czech and Slovak borders.
Principal photography on Little Thief ran from summer to December 2023. Producer Tomáš Hrubý anticipates completion of postproduction by August 2024, with a tentative premiere date set for February 2025. Hrubý also plans to initiate discussions with international sales agents following completion of the rough cut in May 2024.
Hudeček’s gift for transforming locally nuanced themes into globally resonant work is on full display in Little Thief. This “small-town Covid western” uses comedy as a vehicle to delve into family dynamics, existential crises, and the interplay between life’s aspirations and disillusions.
The film’s balance of serious and light, tragic and comic, avoids both diminishing its genre appeal and trivializing the poignant subjects. Hudeček skillfully straddles the realms of arthouse cinema and audience-driven genre filmmaking. This duality—heist comedy as touching social drama, replete with black humor, absurd plot twists, and a cast of eccentric characters—is a unique package that promises to resonate with domestic and international moviegoers alike.
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