Director: Jirí Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires (plus Ivan Passer & Juraz Herz for the added shorts)
Screenplay: Bohumil Hrabal, Jirí Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires (plus Ivan Passer & Juraz Herz for the added shorts)
Based on Short Stories by: Bohumil Hrabal
Starring: Pavla Marsálková, Ferdinand Kruta, Emil Iserle, Milos Ctrnacty, Frantisek Havel, Josefa Pechlatová, Václav Zák, Vera Mrázkova, Vladimír Boudník, Dana Valtová, Ivan Vyskocil
Running Time: 107 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The anthology film Pearls of the Deep (a.k.a. Perličky na dně), made up of five shorts directed by Jirí Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Vera Chytilová and Jaromil Jires, has been referred to as the “manifesto of the Czechoslovak New Wave”. It wasn’t the first film in the movement but was the directorial debut for a couple of the filmmakers involved in the project and effectively put across the group’s aims and intentions through its style and approach.
Whilst the collection of directors each put their own stamp on their entries to the film, they form a cohesive whole through all being based on short stories by Bohumil Hrabal. The writer also makes cameo appearances in each segment and collaborated on their screenplays.
Hrabal’s work largely focused on situations and characters rather than plot, often looking at people on the fringes of society, not fitting with the ‘official’ socialist ideology. This likely appealed to the young, rebellious filmmakers of the New Wave.
Pearls of the Deep is a film I’ve heard oft-mentioned in the special features and booklets of Second Run’s exemplary Czech New Wave releases. It also features in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s epic documentary CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel. As such, I’ve long been keen to see the film, ever since I began my belated discovery and love of the Czech New Wave.
Second Run once again answered my call and are releasing the film on Blu-ray, alongside two short films that were originally intended to be part of Pearls of the Deep but were cut out, for length I believe. Needless to say, I got hold of a copy of the disc and my thoughts follow.
The first segment of the film is ‘The Death of Mr Balthazar’ (Smrt pana Baltazara), directed by Jiří Menzel. This sees a middle-aged couple and their uncle travel by car (after initially repairing it) to watch the Czechoslovak motorbike Grand Prix. Once there, they talk with a one-legged spectator about the various deaths they’ve witnessed at previous motorbike races.
The film reflects Hrabal’s style described earlier, in how incident and narrative are kept to a minimum. Instead, the film thrives on the characters and their often boastful banter. Whilst not an out-and-out comedy, there is subtle, wry humour in their interplay, making for an enjoyable watch, despite the lack of story grounding things.
The segment is beautifully shot (like the others that made the cut, the cinematographer was Jaroslav Kucera), with artful compositions and effective use of footage captured during an actual race event.
The second segment is ‘The Imposters’ (Podvodníci), directed by Jan Němec. It mainly consists of two elderly gentlemen waxing lyrical about their successful pasts. One describes his life as an opera singer and the other as a famous journalist. Towards the end of the segment, however, we discover this has all been fabricated or embellished.
The Imposters is the shortest and most formally simple of the collection but it’s no less effective. The final revelation and an ironic twist that follows this deliver an effective punchline, where the initial portion alone might have seemed a little inconsequential.
Next up is ‘The House of Joy’ (Dům radosti) directed by Evald Schorm. This sees a pair of life insurance salesmen visit an eccentric painter. As he shows them his work, which largely consists of paintings daubed all around his home and goat farm, the salesmen continue to pester him.
This is the only short in the collection to be shot in colour, presumably to enhance the art within it. As such, it stands out among the rest. It’s unusual in other ways too, with surreal segments, such as seeing the painter dancing among his goats wielding his butcher’s knives, and a couple of playful cinematic flourishes. It’s quite a wild little film.
The next segment is ‘At the World Cafeteria’ (Automat Svět), directed by Věra Chytilová. This sees a busy cafe close its bar downstairs after a woman is found hung in the bathroom. The staff stay and chat to the one remaining customer whilst a rowdy wedding party takes place upstairs. The bride eventually comes down to argue with the police about getting her husband released after he’s arrested for punching one of them in the eye. She later hooks up with the customer.
This is probably my favourite segment in the original film, mixing introspective reflection with great vitality. Once again, it looks gorgeous, with an artful yet naturalistic approach. Good use is particularly made of the hoards of people peering through the windows to see what happened to the dead girl.
The segment features Hrabal’s friend, the graphic artist Vladimír Boudník, who plays the bar’s single customer. He’s a fictional character but, nevertheless, is one who has created an art exhibition in the factory in which he works.
‘Romance’, directed by Jaromil Jireš, is the final short in the anthology. It sees a hard-up young man begin a relationship with a fiery Roma girl. After they sleep together, she talks of taking their relationship to the next level whilst he looks to be getting out of his depth.
It’s another enjoyably sharp observation of a handful of interesting characters. Whilst its central figure is a little exhausting, it casts the Roma people in a positive light. Their relaxed attitude to life, spending the afternoons sleeping in the sunshine, is shown as idyllic. The horny young male protagonist is also easy to relate to.
Added to the set, as mentioned, are a pair of short films that were originally intended to be part of the anthology. The first up is ‘A Boring Afternoon’ (Fádní odpoledne), directed by Ivan Passer. This sees a handful of older gentlemen in a pub moan about the state of today’s youth, whilst a horde of football fans come and go.
This makes more acute observations of life and is again attractively lensed, though it wasn’t one of my favourite shorts.
The final short included on the disc is Juraj Herz’ ‘The Junk Shop’, a.k.a. ‘Collected Barbarities’ (Sběné surovosti). This sees a motley crew of characters work in the titular shop, where a pile of wooden saints are chopped up, a young boy gets lost in the paper pile and one of the group runs around, telling tall tales to anyone who will listen.
I enjoyed this immensely. It’s my favourite short in the set, which makes it a shame it didn’t make the final cut. It’s the longest of the lot though, so would have pushed the running time into an unwieldy territory.
What made the film easy to digest is its humour. It’s a vibrant, raucous film, with great energy and many surreal, darkly comic moments. Herz’ style is fun too, with a little stop-motion animation thrown in the mix, along with other quirky flourishes.
With the sparse nature of their narratives, the films can feel a little meandering when watched all together. However, overall, Pearls of the Deep and its ‘offcuts’ form an enjoyable collection of offbeat, free-wheeling short films. Though each is by a different director, there’s enough of a similarity in tone and writing (obviously) that the films hold well together. There are no duds here either, which makes a change for an anthology of this kind.
Pearls of the Deep is out on 23rd October on region-free Blu-ray, released by Second Run. It looks stunning, for the most part, with perfectly judged contrast and impressive levels of detail. There’s a little frame judder in ‘At the World Cafeteria’ but it doesn’t detract from an otherwise impressive transfer. The audio is pleasing too.
BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– Pearls of the Deep (Perlicky na dne, 1965) presented from an HD transfer from the new 4K restoration created by the Czech National Film Archive.
– The two additional films based on stories by Bohomil Hrabal that were originally intended to be included in Pearls of the Deep: Ivan Passer’s A Boring Afternoon and Juraj Herz’s The Junk Shop – all seven films presented together for the very first time.
– About Cats, Beatniks and All Sorts of Other Things (1967): a short film on writer Bohumil Hrabal.
– Restoration trailer
– Booklet featuring a substantial new essay by Peter Hames.
– New and improved English subtitle translation.
– World premiere on Blu-ray.
– Region Free (A/B/C) Blu-ray.
The ‘missing’ shorts are the biggest selling point here and I’ve discussed those in my review above but we also get a short documentary on Hrabal. In the piece, the author spends more time talking about his friends and their gatherings back in the previous decade than his own life and work. It gives us a wonderful sense of his personality and writing style though and he does have some fun stories to share. It’s an enjoyably loose and breezy chat.
The booklet contains an essay by Peter Hames that looks at all the shorts within the film and those excised, discussing Hrabal’s work and how it connected with the New Wave filmmakers behind Pearls of the Deep. It’s a valuable resource and makes for required reading.
So, Pearls of the Deep is another cracking Czech New Wave release from Second Run. Here’s hoping there are many more on the horizon.