Dir: Jan Sverak Czech Republic-UK 115mins.

With the WWII aerial drama Dark Blue World, Czech director Jan Sverak has proven his ability to manage both comedy and tragedy on a much larger scale, without losing any of the warmth and emotional depth of his Oscar-winning Kolya. Much of the credit must go to his father Zdenek, who wrote the scripts for both films. Bigger budget action features like Pearl Harbor, which seems one-dimensional by comparison, could learn a lesson in character development and the dramatic engagement of the action as an integral part of the plot from this father-and-son team.

With Dark Blue World, a story that could easily have slipped over into melodrama becomes an intimate drama capable of expressing universal values under Sverak's masterful direction. With its big scale aerial battle action, fine performances from a strong cast and gentle humour, this feature - which has already topped the Czech box office for eight weekshould be able to break out of the arthouse ghetto that becomes the fate of most foreign language films and achieve respectable theatrical results especially in Europe.

A richly human tale of Czech pilots who flee their homeland during WWII to join the British Royal Air Force, only to be imprisoned when they return home after the war, the film tells its story through a series of flashbacks. Shifting back and forth from the greyness of the 1950's communist prison where the former pilot Franta (Vetchy) is a prisoner to the sunny memories of his life before and during the war, the film delivers its anti-totalitarian political message without being heavy-handed or overwhelming the central story of friendship and love.

In the opening scenes, the Nazis catch Franta with his pants down (literally) while he is making love to his girlfriend Hanichka when the Germans invade the airbase where he has been assigned to train young pilots. The Czechs surrender without firing a shot, forcing the pilots to serve under their foreign commanders or flee. Vetchy as Franta brings a wonderful intelligence and sensitivity to the role, portraying the Czech humiliation by the Nazis while managing to project the proud passive resistance that lies beneath. Together with Karel (Hadek), one of the young pilots under his command, he sets off for England where they join other Czechs in fighting against the Germans.

The hotheaded young Karel is frustrated by the British training he must undergo when he can already fly and wants to see action, while Franta tries to help his young friend be patient and overcome his homesickness. Sverak exhibits a fine sense of the absurd, as shown in the scenes of useless training exercises where Czech and British pilots attack each other on bicycles equipped with wings. The warmth of the camaraderie between the Czech pilots is expressed through their singing as well as their good-natured joking about the eccentricities of their British hosts. Clark Gable look-alike Kaiser deserves special mention as Machaty the womanising pilot with a talent for both drinking and playing the piano.

But the Czech pilots are soon airborne and the dogfights between the small British and German planes are given added impact by Soukup's soaring score. Karel and Franta back each other up in the battle in the skies, but the friendship of the two comrades is soon put to the test when they both fall in love with the same woman, Susan, played with some reserve by Tara Fitzgerald. Hadek as Karel proves he is not just another pretty face, particularly in a masterful display that runs the gamut of emotions from tragedy to comedy in a few seconds, when he climbs up to peek through a window - only to discover his friend in bed with his girl and falls into a cabbage patch where anger dissolves rapidly into tears.

Throughout the action, Franta's recollections of friendship, loyalty and love are intercut with the daily life of the grim prison where the pilots have been sent because the totalitarian regime must suppress the ideas of democracy and freedom that they represent. But with typical Czech humanism even the German Nazi doctor who shares their imprisonment is shown some sympathy. There are no black-and-white characters or easy answers on offer here.

Prod co: Biograf Jan Sverak, Portobello Pictures
Int'l sales: TF International
Prods: Eric Abraham, Jan Sverak
Scr: Zdenek Sverak
Cinematography: Vladimir Smutny
Prod des: Jan Vlasak
Ed: Alois Fisarek
Music: Ondrej Soukup
Main Cast: Ondrej Vetchy, Krystof Hadek, Tara Fitzgerald, Oldrich Kaiser, Hans-Jorg Assmann, Charles Dance, Anna Massey