In The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) Jiří Menzel returns to the well to make another gentle comedy featuring his favourite things: the works of Bohumil Hrabal, Rudolf Hrušínský, the idyllic Czech countryside, and the shenanigans of quarrelsome but essentially good-hearted village folk.
As with many of Menzel’s films in a similar vein (Capricious Summer, My Sweet Little Village, Seclusion Near a Forest) the plot is slight – more a comic panorama than a conventional narrative, as Vincent Canby of the New York Times kindly put it. The pacing of The Snowdrop Festival is relaxed even by Menzel’s standards, with the film apparently starting before anyone in it has noticed.
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We’re gradually introduced to the inhabitants of the small village of Kersko, including Franc (Hrušínský Senior), a browbeaten retiree who spends his whole time trying to sneak off to the pub without incurring the wrath of his domineering wife and daughter; Leli (Jaromír Hanzlík) an accident-prone, optimistic guy who can’t resist buying defective knock-offs just because they’re cheap; and Karel (Jirí Krejcík) who is thrown into carnivorous ecstasy at the mere smell of freshly smoked salami…
Vegetarians and vegans, cover your eyes: there is a lot of meat in this movie. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much salami in one film before, including used as a cudgel at one point. The story revolves around the killing of a wild boar, and the subsequent arguments about how to divvy it up between the two competing groups of gamekeepers who lay claim to the carcass.
The dispute arises because the creature is originally shot in a field by Franc and his friends, but they only manage to wound it. After a madcap chase, they finally put it out of its misery in the classroom of the lovely Libuše Šafránková, which sits on enemy turf. It was a different world back then, where three armed men could burst into a school and open fire on a wild animal without anyone raising an eyebrow.
After a lengthy argument and a bit of pushing and shoving, a compromise is reached. The two clans will share the meat in a neutral venue. Further comic disagreements arise – one group wants it served with sauerkraut, the other with rosehip sauce – before the night of the feast, where peace breaks out just long enough for the men to scoff their meat and dumplings.
Co-written by Menzel and Hrabal, the film lightly pokes fun at the behaviour of the villagers, especially the machismo of the two rival groups of gamekeepers. There are some tender moments too – there’s a lovely scene where Leli excitedly shows Franc all the junk he’s got stockpiled in his shed, culminating in some old records. Only half of them play more than halfway, he tells Franc, before putting on a beautiful tune. As we listen, the camera glides over rows and rows of useless tat that he’ll never be able to sell. It’s a sublime moment and oddly moving.
Shot in autumnal hues, Menzel never misses an opportunity to swoop his camera up and over the canopy of trees, revelling in the natural beauty of his country. His version of Kersko seems extremely isolated – we know there is a world outside its boundaries because we see a bus stop and snippets on TV in the clubhouse. But apart from that latter detail and some of the fashions, this story could be set at almost any time in the last 150 years or so.
Performance-wise, The Snowdrop Festival provides a showcase for the comic talents of an ensemble of terrific actors. Hrušínský stands out in a relatively small part where there doesn’t appear much for him to actually do, yet as usual, he makes the most of every moment on screen, able to convey a lifetime of Franc’s frustrations and sadness with the merest change of expression on his weathered, hangdog face.
The Snowdrop Festival is purely entertaining without challenging the audience too much – it certainly doesn’t have the satirical bite that got Miloš Forman in hot water with The Firemen’s Ball, for example. Throughout I was trying to detect any subtext or deeper themes, fully aware as a foreigner that this isn’t my culture and some things may go under my radar. However, I don’t think there is any hidden meaning to this film – it’s just a bittersweet, humorous, charming stay in the country with some excellent actors. And that’s totally OK by me – it makes me want to move out of the city, drink lots of beer in the local pub and eat plenty of freshly butchered pig.