DIRECTED BY: Jirí Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires
FEATURING: Pavla Marsálková, Milos Ctrnacty, Frantisek Havel, Josefa Pechlatová, Václav Zák, Vera Mrázkova, Vladimír Boudník, Alzbeta Lastovková, Dana Valtová, Ivan Vyskocil
PLOT: Short adaptations of five stories from Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal: racing enthusiasts
are obsessed with crashes, two old men in a nursing home reminisce, functionaries try to sell insurance to a mad artist, the discovery of a corpse causes a restaurant to close, and a timid apprentice plumber falls for a fiery teenage Gypsy girl.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Only two of the five segments in this anthology are significantly bizarre, and a paltry 40% weird rate is not going to get your omnibus movie onto the List.
COMMENTS: The Czech New Wave was part of a fascinating period of creativity that resulted from an unprecedented liberalization of film and literature in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s; the movement brought the world the novels of Milan Kundera and the films of director Milos Forman. During this time writers and filmmakers often turned towards surrealism as a way to implicitly critique the absurdity of the totalitarian status quo while maintaining deniability about their political aims (after all, they were merely writing obscure nonsense fiction in the tradition pioneered by national icon Franz Kafka). The New Wave essentially ended in 1968 when, concerned that the rapid pace of democratization might lead Czechoslovakia to exit the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union invaded the country and installed a hard-line regime. Based on short stories by New Wave writer Bohumil Hrabal and featuring entries from five of the top directors of the New Wave, Pearls of the Deep is a sort of sampler of this moment in history when Iron Curtain artists briefly wiggled out of the shackles that had bound them to an ideological wall for decades.
In the wild, you have to open a lot of oysters to find a single pearl; something similar is true of feature length anthology of short films, where the entries have an inevitable tendency to average out. Although even Hrabal’s straightest stories contain small doses of absurdism (which show up in non sequitur dialogues or little narrative oddities), only two of these adaptations have conceits peculiar enough to form surrealistic pearls. Since our focus is on weird films, we’re going to briefly open and reject three out of these five New Wave oysters before looking more carefully at the two more baroque specimens.
The first selection, Jirí Menzel’s talky “Mr. Baltazar’s Death” involves three death-obsessed fans who go to a motorcycle race hoping to see a fatality; they do. It’s a strange choice for an opener, since it’s both a bit boring and the only film not from an established director (Menzel was still a film student at the time). In Jan Nemec’s “The Impostors,” two elderly men reminisce about their careers; it ends with an easily guessed twist that isn’t worth the wait. This is the worst and most pointless of the short films, giving no hint of Nemec’s talent. One of Pearls‘ flaws is that the two segments which start the film are the least interesting installments, but at least the final entry, Jaromil (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) Jires’ “Romance,” is one of the strongest. It compresses a strange romance between a teenage peasant and a young plumber—a relationship that morphs from flirtation into an offer of prostitution into an engagement as the manic Gypsy dream girl changes moods and motives—into a matter of hours. The unreality of this scenario, combined with the fact that the tale ends inconclusively with a surprise shot of a gypsy boy tinkling towards the audience, makes it a borderline weird film experience, but even the most dogmatic cinematic realists will appreciate the genuine chemistry between the two young leads. The unknown Dana Valtová (like most of the actors here, an amateur appearing in her only known role) oozes exotic sex; her seduction of the Czech lad seems not so much easy as inevitable. It doesn’t matter how crazy she acts, she has him from the first moment he glances at her, and she knows it.
The two weirdest pearls are sandwiched in the middle of the film. Centered around a crazy artist who is painting pictures over every inch of his abode (even the windowpanes), Evald Schorm’s “The House of Joy” is the anthology’s least subtle entry, and the only film shot in color. Two Communist functionaries try to sell the obviously deranged painter unnecessary insurance policies; it’s a broad and strange comedy, with aggressively dissonant blasts from a pipe organ deployed at odd points like absurdist punctuation marks. As the artist reveals more and more eccentricities, one of the agents becomes fascinated and repeatedly asks him where he gets his ideas (“it’s inside me, like the inside of a goat” is the clearest answer), while his partner presses ahead with his hard-sell sales pitch. We meet an unexpected muse, and are treated to scenes illustrating the painter’s mad inner life: he dances with a knife in a field of livestock, erects a sheet-metal crucified Jesus at a crossroads in a double-time flashback, and dreams of a line of prepubescent girls waiting to take communion. It’s a strange, chuckle-inspiring sketch with the take-home message “some things should be left as they are.”
Even weirder is Vera (Daisies) Chytilová’s offering, “Automat Svet” (translated as “The Restaurant the World”). It’s the only pure surrealist segment; it’s also the favorite of many critics, thanks to some remarkable slow-motion black and white photography. The dreamlike plot defies rational explanation, but it involves the discovery of a corpse in a restaurant/bar that forces the patrons out into the rainy city streets. The sounds of revelers singing polkas at a wedding party next door seep into the depressingly empty saloon. A few favored customers are allowed in for a glass of beer while crowds outside stare through the window, waiting patiently to be let back in. A factory worker/artist who makes industrial engravings with tools and dies, and also crafts death masks for his friends to cheer them up, is hustled inside; he tells an involved, wandering tale about his lost fiancée over a glass of beer. The police arrive and then, soaked with rain, the bride from the party next door somehow enters the automat through the locked door, angrily fills her shoe with water from the faucet, and takes a drink from it. It is revealed that her groom was arrested for punching one of the cops in the eye; she’s horny on her wedding night, though, so she picks up the artist (who likes her because her hair “looks like it was cut at a juvenile detention facility”). In slow motion the newly-minted couple dances away into the rainy street, with the bride’s gown and massive veil billowing magically in the wind. Among other lingering mysteries, we’re left to wonder if the corpse of the woman found in the automat is the artist’s missing fiancée…
Pearls of the Deep is the structural center of the Criterion Collection’s 2012 Eclipse series box set “Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The compilation contains one feature length effort from each of Pearls’ contributors, for a total of six movies (on four DVDs). Two of the features, Nemec’s unsettling A Report on the Party and the Guests and Chytilová’s psychedelic Daisies, are significantly weird enough to merit separate reviews in upcoming weeks. The other three pieces, in increasing order of interest, are Schorm’s Return of the Prodigal Son (1967) (a bleak drama about a suicidal man that is a bit too obviously derivative of its Western influences like Antonioni and Godard); Menzel’s Capricious Summer (1967) (a chaste Czech sex comedy); and Jires’ The Joke (about an apolitical college student who is sentenced to six years hard labor for writing “long live Trotsky” as a joke on a postcard). The Joke, which only played for a few weeks in the Prague spring of 1968, is likely the most anti-Communist movie ever produced in a Communist country. It was immediately banned after the Soviet invasion; it is a small miracle that this film even exists.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…fascinating omnibus film… based on semi-surrealist tales by national literary lion Bohumil Hrabal… the films look totalitarian life square in the eye, but they’re also living testaments to the era’s lovable, grungy Euro-slacker esprit.”–Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (DVD)