Director: Ivan Passer
Screenplay: Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer, Václav Sasek
Starring: Zdenek Bezusek, Karel Blazek, Miroslav Cvrk, Vera Kresadlová, Jan Vostrcil, Vlastimila Vlková
Running Time: 74 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I keep kicking myself for putting off watching any Czech New Wave films until I was in my 30s, as every single title I’ve been sent to review so far has been brilliant. Not looking to buck the trend is the latest Czechoslovakian classic I’ve been sent to review by Second Run, Intimate Lighting, which once again I adored.
Intimate Lighting was directed by Ivan Passer, who made his feature film directorial debut here. He’d previously only made one short of note, A Boring Afternoon (included in this set), which took home the prize for best short film at the prestigious Lorcano International Film Festival. A writer friend of his approached him to direct his next script. Passer agreed, as his friend was hard up and needed the money the studio would give him to write it, but the director didn’t expect the film to be made. When he was asked to get started on the project a few months later, he was surprised but got to it and delivered Intimate Lighting as promised.
The film sees professional cellist Petr (Zdenek Bezusek) and his girlfriend Stepa (Vera Kresadlová) arrive in Petr’s home town so that he can play for his brother Kaja’s (Miroslav Cvrk) orchestra during a big military concert. We never see this concert, but instead follow the pair as they hang out with Kaja, their grandfather (Jan Vostrcil) and the rest of his family for a day or so before the event.
That’s pretty much all there is to the story. This isn’t a film concerned with narrative. Passer himself puts it best on the interview included here when he says he thought “why not just visit the characters” like we visit our own relations. This sounds like the recipe for a very dull and slow moving proto-mumblecore drama, but it ends up being anything but. Through its wonderful observations of life it’s filled with warmth and humour, so it’s a genuine pleasure to watch. Besides, running at only 74 minutes, you don’t have time to get bored.
On the surface then it seems like a light romp, but as with a number of Czech New Wave films, Intimate Lighting was banned for around two decades in its home country. On initial viewing, I found this hard to believe, but as I thought back and delved through the special features and booklet I realised there’s more to the film than meets the eye. Although filled with humour, the characters in the film all seem dissatisfied with life. Quick lines and small details are dropped here and there as to the difficulty of feeding a family, building a house or owning a car in Czechoslovakia at the time. A wonderful final shot also has the family frozen in time as they wait for their overly thick eggnog to fall to their lips. This made me laugh initially, but later I realised there’s a layer of satire here I didn’t pick up on. This final image could symbolise one of two things against the political system at the time. Either it demonstrates how stuck the characters are in waiting to be happy or it suggests they just have to be patient to get there. Each idea points a target at a need to improve the situation at the time.
Its political digs are very subtle though, so I’m surprised they caused the government to ban the film. Passer (once again in the interview included on the disc) believes it’s because he seemed to ignore the regime, who were happier for filmmakers to openly argue with them than they were to be totally sidestepped.
Rather than a bitter political satire though, I found the film tremendously life affirming. Yes, few characters are satisfied with their lot in life, but they find happiness in the little moments. Most notably, Intimate Lighting has one of the best scenes of drunkenness ever put to film. Petr and Kaja find time alone at the end of the day and crack open the family reserves of homemade booze. They sit and chat, listen to classical music and get up to some hijinks before a weak attempt to leave their meagre lives behind and start afresh. As well as being very funny, this extended sequence also had a few lines of dialogue that had me shouting “yes!” in total agreement. Kaja tells his brother, “this is what I like. When it’s quiet and I just sit here, listen (to music) and eat” (or something along those lines). That is bliss to me.
The film spoke to me in numerous ways as it gently unfolded before me. Music plays a big part, and, being a musician myself, I appreciated the way it approached the subject. Using actual musicians in the appropriate roles (and non-professional actors throughout), you can see they’re actually playing on screen and they’re not always great, which only adds to the naturalism. There are some wonderful scenes of practising too where you see the truth behind music performance, beyond the sheen of professional recordings most people are familiar with. You have the musicians endlessly bickering and trying to either outdo each other in the group or hide in the background so as to not show people up.
This naturalism, humour and satisfying use of music is all part and parcel of the film’s superb embodiment of the joys and frustrations of life. It is, like Passer said, as if you’re dropping in on a friend or relative and enjoying your time together whilst moaning about the usual troubles and strifes.
It’s an odd little film perhaps, with little in terms of plot to keep the popcorn munchers happy, but it’s filled to the brim with humanity. Even without a narrative drive it’s an absolute pleasure to watch as it’s so well observed and funny. It looks great to boot, with some un-showy but nicely composed black and white cinematography from the great Miroslav Ondrícek and Josef Strecha. Throw in some political commentary that is quietly sharp, but never rubs your nose in it, and you’ve got yourself an unusual sort of subtle masterpiece.
Intimate Lighting is out on 7th May on Blu-Ray in the UK (the DVD has been out for a while), released by Second Run. The picture and audio quality are superb.
A few special features are included too:
– Filmed interview with director Ivan Passer.
– Ivan Passer’s short film A Boring Afternoon (Fádní odpoledne, 1964) presented from a new HD transfer from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive.
– Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Trevor Johnston, and an essay by critic Phillip Bergson.
The interview is great with Passer giving an honest and enjoyable account of the film’s production, filled with fun anecdotes. The booklet is as excellent as ever too and helps inform about the political elements of the film. The short is a nice addition too.