A subtitle for this anthology of short films based on the stories of Bohumil Hrabal may as well be “The Czechoslovak New Wave in a Nutshell”, as it showcases the work of five of the movement’s then up-and-coming directorial stars: Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová and Jaromil Jireš. While the garrulous voice of the author comes through loud and clear in all segments, each director uses their tale as a framework for their burgeoning filmmaking talents.
First up is Menzel, who was the only one of the five who didn’t already have a full feature under his belt, but would go on to have a rewarding long-standing collaboration with Hrabal with films such as Closely Watched Trains, Cutting it Short and I Served the King of England. In The Death of Mr Baltazar, we follow three ageing petrolheads to a day at the Moto GP in their vintage 1931 Walter Convertible, a rickety old jalopy still capable of transporting six butchers and a bed. While the crowd wait for the race to start, they trade stories with another elderly spectator about all the horrific accidents they have witnessed. It’s almost as if they watch the sport to see which rider will come a cropper next and, sure enough, the day’s race adds another fatality to their highlight reel.
Next is Němec with The Imposters, a slender skit about two elderly care home patients who regale each other with stories of their former glories. One claims he was a celebrated opera singer who once had to flee the country after a princess fell in love with him. The other says he was a reputed writer who covered stories about the capital city’s seamier side, such as “The Monaco of the Prague Underworld”. Poignantly, it turns out that neither man was quite as successful as they claim, re-living their life as they would have wanted it through their tall tales.
Schorm’s full colour House of Joy really leaps off the screen after the first two black-and-white stories, finding a pair of state insurance officials visiting the ramshackle farmhouse of an eccentric painter and “muse” – his equally eccentric mother. The farmer has covered the whole inside and outside of their abode with bright childlike paintings, including a large Jesus which nowadays can’t help but recall that botched restoration job of Ecco Homo a few years back. The cheerful artwork stands in stark contrast to the slaughtered, half-skinned carcass of a sheep hanging in the hallway and the various furs and antlers of other butchered animals hanging around the place. The insurance men’s valiant sales pitch falls on deaf ears as the couple plan to sell the house as an entire work of art.
Returning to atmospheric black-and-white for the last two entries, Chytilová’s dark and enigmatic At the World Cafeteria takes place in a dreary cafe on a wet and windy evening. As a raucous wedding party takes place upstairs, the proprietor discovers a young woman hanged in the bathroom. While waiting for the police to arrive she kicks out all her customers apart from one gloomy and serious man, an artist who works with sheet metal and likes making death masks for his friends. He tells her about the woes of his suicidal girlfriend and catches the attention of the newlywed bride.
The collection of films wraps up with a far less morbid tale. Jireš’s sweet and feisty Romance charts the relationship between a solitary, shy Czech plumber and a spirited young Roma woman. It’s a topic Hrabal would return to again with devastating effect in his later novel Too Loud a Solitude. From the moment they set eyes on each other in the mirror in a cinema lobby they are smitten, and she reels the tentative young man in with dreams of a living together and a whirlwind introduction to the Roma lifestyle.
All the usual Hrabal themes and preoccupations come through vividly in the screenplay, even for those of us relying on subtitles. The short films display the author’s usual blend of humanistic compassion, bawdy humour and macabre fatalism, delivered in his signature absurd, magical realist style. The conversations between characters are essentially a sequence of interwoven deadpan monologues, apart from in the last story, which is the most naturalistic and hopeful.
As you would expect from an anthology made by five leading lights of the New Wave, the craft is uniformly excellent. Each director revels in the possibilities of Cinéma vérité-style filmmaking, making great use of evocative natural lighting and real-world locations. There are plenty of arresting images – spectators slumbering in hammocks high among the trackside trees as motorcycles crest the brow of a hill to the strains of Bach; the farmer-artist’s garishly painted house; a bride’s wedding veil blowing wildly in slow-motion during a gale; a Roma family luxuriating in the grass as the city bustles around them.
Individually, the stories that make Pearls of the Deep are a little uneven, but as a whole they display a rich and energetic interest in the lives of ordinary people, and all the joys and woes that come with them.
This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.