Can a dog experience joy? In the last scene of Something Like Happiness — a scene that is all one well-crafted shot, actually — Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmová) stands in a train corridor, gazing out at the Czech landscape whizzing by. It’s a hopeful moment: We’re led to infer that Monika is traveling to reunite with Tonik (Pavel Liska), the love of her life, after previously spurning him for a yuppie slickster who was emigrating to the U.S. Here in the train corridor, Monika isn’t beaming exactly; in keeping with the movie’s hardscrabble realism, she radiates more of a cautious happiness, the hint of a smile.
The landscape flashing by is hardly beautiful. This is northern Bohemia, and during the previous 90-plus minutes the film has excelled at portraying an industrial backwater so desolate and dispiriting as to rank alongside the most derelict parts of Detroit. But as Monika looks out, there are kids playing, signs of life, and above all, the wonderful surprise of a dog, a handsome German shepherd that gets it into his head to race alongside the train.
As he charges along, his ears flatten, his tongue lolls outside his mouth, and it looks as if he’s smiling, having the time of his life even as the train pulls away from him. More than that — both times I watched the scene, I couldn’t help thinking, that dog looks downright exhilarated. As if in this moment, he’s doing exactly what he was put here on earth to do.
For all I know, director Bohdan Sláma painstakingly arranged, somehow, for the dog to run after the train. But in the shot, the illusion of spontaneity is complete. And besides, there’s no accounting for how damn happy the dog looks. I like how Sláma doesn’t feel the need to tie a bow around the moment. The shot is a true grace note, both Monika’s hard-won optimism and the dog’s exuberance testimony that fleeting and unexpected as it may be, happiness, too, is part of realism.
Something Like Happiness is now streaming on Netflix and Fandor. Also available on DVD.