Witty but sometimes painstakingly slow, The Owners (Vlastníci) is a clever political satire on the failures of democracy.
At the beginning of The Owners (Vlastníci), during a discussion, one of the characters says, “I was alluding to the triviality of the people’s vote and the democratic deficit in times governed clearly ideologically.” This is, at large, what the entire film is alluding to, as it examines themes of ideologies, rights, and what it really means to vote in a democratic way that ensures everybody’s interests are considered. The latter seems to be an impossible mission in the self-referential and self-interested world of the movie, as anyone who has had the misfortune of taking part in an apartment building meeting knows.
Written and directed by Jiří Havelka, The Owners tells the story of one of the most common and well-known forms of direct democracy: the co-op apartment building meeting. The owners of each apartment in the flat complex come together to discuss some issues regarding the shared building and make some important decisions regarding the future of the apartments. During their meeting, under the vigilant control of Mrs Horváthová (Dagmar Havlová), the audience gains an insight into the owners of the apartment. As such, we get to know the characters, including Mrs Zahrádková (Tereza Voříšková) and her husband (Vojtěch Kotek), determined to save the apartment complex, Mr Nitranský (Andrej Polák), Mr Kubát (Jiří Lábus), and the Čermák brothers (Kryštof Hádek and Stanislav Majer).
Much of The Owners is the conversations between the titular owners, exclusively focusing on the long-winded and oftentimes pointless discussions between the characters. While this is an interesting format, one that allows us to get to know the characters and their motivations argument after argument, it does not always work for the whole runtime of the film. This can soon get repetitive as the film is almost exclusively set in one single room with the same characters discussing the same arguments over and over. The structure of the film theoretically works, as it highlights the useless and slow nature of the whole meeting, but it ends up hurting the rhythm of the movie and seemingly causes the film to be set in a sort of vacuum.
A political satire rather than an actual comedy, The Owners delivers its key concept with a clear metaphor, using the building meeting to comment on democracy as a form of government. Despite being such a direct metaphor, it is a clever one as each character represents something structurally wrong with the system, from the obsession with the by-laws embodied by Mrs Horváthová to the idealistic nature of Mrs Zahrádková and the ideology-driven debates the other characters tend to embark on. In the end, what matters the most to them is their own interests and their ideals rather than actual solutions that would benefit the entire building. And this, the film poignantly underlines, is where they all fail in the end.
The best part of the film is its final act and, particularly, the final sequence in slow motion. In fact, the last half an hour of The Owners diverges from its previous repetitive structure as most of the characters reach their breaking point and secrets are finally revealed. As such, the movie drives its metaphor a little further, truly exploring the flaws of this system of self-governance and uncovering the inherent corruption behind it. With its final moments, the film seems to have reached a surface-level happy ending but it also begs the question of whether this really is a happy ending given the outcome of the apartment building meeting that is, admittedly, not the perfect one the idealist characters may have wanted.
Overall, I still enjoyed Havelka’s film, despite its slow moments during the first half of its runtime, some of which felt unnecessary as we witness the lengthy discussions the owners have to endure. Although its metaphor may be quite simple and straightforward by the end of the movie, The Owners is a clever film, one that can be appreciated for its reflection on democracy. Its commentary on the limitations of this flawed system of government is the most interesting part of the film as it can spark a discussion and reflection among the viewers.
The Owners (Vlastníci) will open at The Quad in New York on August 18 and at Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on August 25, 2023. The film is now available to watch on digital and on demand in Czech Republic.