It's taken 20 years - but Jiri Menzel, director of ``My Sweet Little Village,'' is back in the Oscar race. Many a moviegoer recalls ``Closely Watched Trains,'' which earned Mr. Menzel the 1967 Academy Award for best foreign-language film. It's the bittersweet story of a Czech adolescent who comes of age while working in a railroad station during the chaos of World War II.
``My Sweet Little Village,'' up for this year's foreign-film Oscar, comes from the same gentle corner of Menzel's imagination.
Again the characters are ordinary folks in an ordinary town. And again the drama comes from uninvited forces - not a war this time, but bureaucracy and assorted human failings - that skew the natural harmony of things.
With his broad smile and droopy eyes, Menzel resembles a character from one of his own movies. Since he's an experienced actor as well as a director, this may be an effect he cultivates.
In any case, it's easy to picture him trading tales with the gossipy doctor of his ``sweet little village,'' or trudging to work with the grumpy truck-driver, or commiserating with the husband whose wife's affections (and attentions) are roaming.
Characters are the most important ingredient in filmmaking, Menzel told me during a recent New York visit.
``I'm not a philosopher or a politician,'' he asserts, speaking in strongly accented English with help from an interpreter. ``My goal isn't to make ideas, it's to make films - to tell stories. Shakespeare never said: I must write something about jealousy, so I'll write `Othello.' The story came first.''
Menzel's own performing background comes in handy when he's helping an actor develop a character. ``My experience is very useful,'' he explains, ``because I understand the fear and uncertainties an actor has before the camera. I play [scenes] for the actors - to show the movement, the actions, the mimicry, the feelings. The actors in this film are my friends, so they understand me. The work is very quick....''
Menzel says the government-controlled Czech film industry is different from Hollywood's, but he finds plenty of similarities between the two systems.
``To compare the Czech film industry with [that of] the capitalist world,'' he says, ``there's not a big difference. To get the best picture of our industry, imagine that the government in Washington gives to MGM all power - for all filmmaking, all distribution, all exports and imports. But the government chooses the people who run MGM, and these people are responsible only to the government.'' Menzel says he has no trouble poking fun - or aiming criticisms - at Czech society in his films. ``One can express much if one does it with gentleness and without hate,'' he says.
Menzel has a good deal of respect for some contemporary American directors, naming Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, and Hal Ashby as favorites. He also admires Czech filmmaker Milos Forman, who now works in the American film industry - and whose ``Amadeus'' and ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' have the ``very human'' quality Menzel values so highly.
But he adds, with a tone of sadness and regret, that American filmmaking is mostly disappointing nowadays. ``One one side, the TV influence has been very bad: speech, speech, speech. On the other side is big action: too superficial, too simple, and - sorry - too stupid.''
Menzel has strong feelings about excessive violence in movies. ``This big action and big adventure, full of blood and dramatics, deadens the audience,'' he says quietly. ``They just watch - death, another death, a massacre - and eat their popcorn and don't feel. The old films had a tremendous ability to make us feel what was in the heart and head of another person. But this kind of cinema is slowly being forgotten.''
While he deplores this situation, Menzel still celebrates the classical Hollywood tradition that has taught him so much. ``Cinema came from America,'' he says with a wistful smile. ``John Ford and Griffith and Chaplin - many good American filmmakers are a big influence on all Europe, not on Czechoslovakia alone. They showed us how it's possible to tell a story with a picture....''