In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino ruminates on five “qualities or peculiarities of literature” that he holds dear (he died before he finishing the sixth memo).  The first quality, ‘lightness’ (leggerezza), describes not frivolity, but a nimbleness — with story, with language — that makes the gravity of the world easier to bear.  “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness,” Calvino writes, “I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.  I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational.  I mean that I have to… look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”  For Calvino, lightness and weight are two indivisible sides of the same coin; the presence of one does not necessarily indicate the absence of the other.

As an example of this, Calvino cites Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The novel, he writes, is “a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading opporession that has been the fate of [Kundera’s] hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be.”  According to Calvino, Kundera “shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”

The film maintains this delicate balance, veering from erotic comedy to serious relationship drama; from a gritty political realism to a satire of Soviet totalitarianism.  What’s the best way to equilibrate Juliette Binoche’s debilitating paranoia?  Stellan Skarsgård’s ass, of course!  I’m not sure what about the Czech Republic invites this mixture of light and weight (Calvino also mentions Kafka in his memo), but the film captures this mood visually:  early on, Prague appears vibrant and thriving; later, dilapidated and confining.

But perhaps this reflects Prague itself.  When Matthew and I traveled there in 2008, the film’s landscape ran in reverse.  On the bus ride from Ruzyne International Airport, Matthew noted, with a look like he’d just bitten into a licorice jellybean, the Soviet-style block housing zooming by.  But once we arrived in the Old City, Prague had become fantastic (in the classic definition of the word).  As one of Matthew’s colleagues described it, “Disneyland done right.”

Nothing, though, encapsulated the heady interplay of weight and lightness better than the changing of the guard at Prague Castle.  As with any quasi-military ceremony, it was performed with the formalized dignity of a Viennese waltz(except with bayonets and sabers).  The guards wore powder-blue uniforms, a tri-color herringbone cord looping around their shoulders and disappearing between the buttons of their jackets.  They marched gravely and lined up in formation, each soldier stretching out his left arm to ensure the proper distance between him and the next.  One held a flag embroidered with the words Pravda Vítĕzí, while, from windows overhead, a military band played — trombones, tuba, snare drum.

The solemnity was leavened, however, with the knowledge that those uniforms were not of strict military origin; instead, they were designed by Theodor Pistek, who won an Oscar for his costume work on Amadeus.  And though the soldiers paraded themselves with the utmost solemnity, I sensed that the soldiers knew that what they were really did was less a military necessity and more a show for the throngs of tourists crowding outside the gate, snapping pictures and reveling in the ceremony, and I sensed that beneath their po-faces, they put some extra lightness in their steps for our benefit.