The political situation in the Czechoslovakia in the ’60s was to some extent a boon to local filmmakers, since they had ready access to resources (with no producers to woo), and an endless source of inspiration in the pervasive bureaucratic madness. The Czech films in the years leading up to the late-’60s’ “Prague spring” are at once satirical and celebratory, embracing the nation’s Bohemian roots and dark sense of humor, while also acknowledging the hellishness of the system. But these films didn’t escape censorship entirely; many were banned almost as soon as they were made. The movement toward a more expressive, low-to-the-ground cinema came later to Czechoslovakia than it did to other European countries, but it’s a miracle that artists facing such scrutiny were ever able to produce work as varied and innovative as the six features in Eclipse’s remarkable, essential Pearls Of The Czech New Wave box set.
The full range of what the Czech New Wave could do is evident in the 1966 anthology Pearls Of The Deep. Five directors—Věra Chytilová, Jaromi Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, and Evald Schorm—adapted short stories by Bohumil Hrabal, using styles that range from docu-drama to absurdism as a way of capturing how their countrymen live, love, suffer, and create. There are short films here about motorcycle races, folk artists, flirtation, celebration, and dying, rendered in color and black and white, and with a mix of lyricism, low comedy, and stark reality. It’s the rare omnibus film with no real weak spots, and it makes a fine introduction to the diversity and artistry of the rest of this set, which contains one feature each from the Pearls Of The Deep directors.
Němec’s A Report On The Party And Guests, for example, is almost like a guerrilla theater piece captured on film. It’s set in the woods, where a group of well-dressed citizens see their pleasurable day-trip waylaid by government forces who rope them into a bizarre outdoor dinner party. The film carries the spirit of surreal satirists like Luis Buñuel, but its critiques of authority are more direct. Not as direct, though, as Jireš’ The Joke, which in just over 80 minutes spans decades and speaks directly to the insidiousness of totalitarianism. Based on the debut novel by Milan Kundera (and inspired by an incident in Kundera’s youth), The Joke is about one man’s attempt to exact revenge on a former friend who had a hand in sending him to a work-camp for an offhand quip he made about the Communist Party. Jireš draws the story taut, giving it the tension of a thriller even when it becomes less about the state than about personal grudges. Whether they’re dealing with romance or political tribunals, Kundera and Jireš show how individual will can be subsumed into the collective.
Schorm’s Return Of The Prodigal Son is quite different from the other films in the Pearls box, in that it’s less experimental and more of a raw character sketch. Jan Kačer plays a depressive young man who cycles in and out of institutions, spending his time on the outside with family members who don’t fully understand why he can’t keep it together, especially since nearly everybody they know feels blue most of the time. In Michael Koresky’s DVD liner notes, he notes that Schorm’s work troubled the authorities not because he directly attacked or mocked the state, but because he tended to focus on individual unhappiness, which wasn’t conducive to the larger ideals of the republic. “Unhappiness” isn’t an issue with Menzel’s Capricious Summer, a charming fusion of Renoir and Chekhov, based on a novel by Vladislav Vančura. Set at a small waterfront resort, Capricious Summer is about how a traveling circus rouses the ardor of the resort’s middle-aged residents, giving them something to do besides rehashing the same old arguments. The situation could’ve been fashioned as something heavier, but Menzel frames it as a light, human comedy. Yet Menzel—best known for his Oscar-winning 1967 feature Closely Watched Trains—still crossed horns with the state, a victim of guilt by association.
The highlight of the entire Pearls box is Chytilová’s Daisies, an anarchic avant-garde comedy about two young women named Marie (played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová) who spend the movie’s entire 76 minutes dancing, giggling, eating, changing clothes, trashing property, and driving men crazy with desire. There’s no plot, per se, just one eye-popping shot after another of a couple of youthful lunatics, in what could be read as a critique of selfish privilege, a celebration of feminist power, or just an excuse for Chytilová to play around with tints, color, and wild juxtapositions. Yet while Daisies (which, like A Report On The Party And Guests, was co-scripted by Ester Krumbachová) is mostly just inspired mayhem, the central relationship between the two Maries is a familiar one, both from real life and from movies like Ghost World and The World Of Henry Orient. Theirs is an example of how a strong bond between friends can be at once empowering, mysterious, and destructive, giving ordinary citizens the courage to defy.
Key features: None.
Grade: Capricious Summer: A-; Daisies: A; The Joke: A-; Pearls Of The Deep: A-; A Report On The Party And Guests: B+; Return Of The Prodigal Son: B+