Pearls of the Deep (1965) Second Run – Blu Ray
All of the short films in this portmanteau production are adaptations from the stories of Bohumil Hrabal (1914 -1997) who was one of the most important Czech writers of the 20th century. Hrabal had a shaggy dog style. He was more interested in character than plot. His people are political outsiders, artists, the homeless, the marginalised or ordinary folk being wilful and obsessive. Pearls of the Deep contains the early work of Jiri Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Vera Chytilova and Jaromil Jires. Later in the sixties they were to become key directors in the Czech New Wave. The contributions of Ivan Passer and Juraj Herz were completed yet not included when the film was first released. Only now are they available again on this Second Run blu ray.
Today, omnibus story films are unfashionable. Their vogue was mostly from the late forties to the early seventies. It’s a form that tries to yolk together divergent director styles and can be a bit hit and miss. Pearls of the Deep (discounting the two films left out) is a successful and entertaining work that’s often referred to as the manifesto of Czechoslovak New Wave. Yet it’s attraction for me lies not so much in its covert anti-authoritarian stance but the perceptive social observation of individualists whose behaviour doesn’t conform to the socialist state model.
As the credits appear at the opening of the first story, The Death of Mr. Balthazar (Jiri Menzel) we have the guest appearance of Bohumil Hrabal himself leaving his home in Prague. The film recounts a family outing to the racetrack. A couple and the elderly uncle arrive in their vintage 30s car and perch themselves near the race track. Their reminiscences of former races are intercut with footage of a real race: mostly accidents and deaths are discussed with a mix of sadness and ruefulness. Then a driver named Mr.Balthazar crashes very near them. The Death of Mr. Balthazar is a delight – packed with sly comedy as the wickedly garrulous group appear to ‘collect’ misfortune then, proud of their car, enjoy overtaking cyclists as they drive happily home.
The Imposters (Jan Nemec) consists of a conversation between two old men in a hospital. One says he was a singer in operetta. The other a successful journalist. But once dead a hospital assistant says they were lying. A more humble member of the chorus and a gardening correspondent were their actual jobs. The Imposters is a pithy comment on mortality and vanity. And the faces of the old men resembled the scary old hunters in Nemec’s holocaust film Diamonds of the Night made one year before.
The House of Joy (Evald Schorm). This is the only colour film contribution. Vaclav Zak (a real life primitive painter and keeper of goats) has painted the inside and outside of his home with religious imagery, stags, gnomes and toadstools. Two state officials have come to sell him life insurance. Vaclav has agreed to this but his mother (and muse) stops this. The film’s zany charm (incorporating slow motion and joyful organ music) is very winning as the officials are continually confounded and then won over by Vaclav’s talents.
At the World Cafeteria (Vera Chytilova) One of the lovely surprises of this dark, but funny meditation on suicide, marriage and artistic expression is to hear a drunken wedding party singing “Roll out the Barrel” in Czech! A young woman is found hanging in the storeroom of the café. Her suicide brings in the police. The groom attacks a policeman. He’s placed in jail for the night. The very drunk bride is determined not to spend her wedding night alone. An artist, buying a beer is in the café talking to the barmaid of how he, and his now dead partner, used to play artistic suicide games (creating death masks). The bride (Vera Mrazkova) choses the artist Karlik (Vladimir Boudnik) for her bedfellow. Chytilova directs in a playful and poetic manner as if she were meshing Jean Vigo with Milos Forman (The one Czech director not included in Pearls of the Deep).
For me At the World Cafeteria is the highlight of the set. A brilliant, visually vibrant, anarchic tale of instant gratification, state control, bureaucratic absurdity clashing with spontaneous desire: from the director of the famous Daises. Unforgettable.
Romance (Jaromil Jires) is the story of a young plumber’s assistant Gaston (Ivan Vyskocil) and a Roma girl named Margitka (Dana Valtova). They meet outside of a cinema; go back to her place to have sex and the next day visit her Roma camp where the community is sleeping outdoors in the summer heat. Both actors work well together: exhibiting both insouciance and hope about their meet up and doubts if anything lasting can be maintained. Romance is engaging but its ideas would have held my attention more if they had been expanded into a feature.
A Boring Afternoon (Ivan Passer) and The Junk Shop (Juraj Herz) are the two extra items. A Boring Afternoon has some funny scenes with a drunken young man constantly annoying a furious publican – especially when he lights his cigarette with a banknote. The Junkshop is the longest film on the disc and rather meandering. However it does provide a line of dialogue that nicely sums up this remarkable cinematic tribute to the quirky universe of Bohomil Herbal. “The world is full of rare beauty.” And you will find much beauty embedded in the characters of this very welcome reissue of an almost forgotten film manifesto.