Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jasny at AFA: Cassandra Cat

From witches’ familiars to live action Disney films, cats endowed with supernatural powers are a long established archetype of story and legend. Such is also the case with Mokol, a bespectacled critter who disrupts the sleepy existence of a provincial Czech town in Vojtech Jasny’s Cassandra Cat. A leader of the Czech New Wave, Jasny is the subject of an upcoming Anthology Film Archives retrospective, beginning this Friday with Cat.

Part family fable and part surreal acid trip, Cat starts out conventionally enough, as Mr. Oliver, the town’s free spirit in charge of exposition introduces the audience to the cast of characters, including our protagonist, Robert, a humane, animal-loving art teacher, and the antagonist, his authoritarian principal, who happens to be an expert hunter who has largely stocked the town taxidermy museum with his kills.

Oliver, who later explains his mission in life is to fire the imagination of children, addresses Robert’s art class, telling a tall tale about a beautiful woman with a cat who wore eye-glasses. According to the old man, those glasses held in check a special ability the feline possessed: the power to turn people bright colors reflecting their true selves, yellow for the unfaithful, purple for liars, grey for thieves, and red for those in love.

Shortly thereafter, a rather eccentric troupe of vaudevillians and Dixieland musicians comes to town, led by a magician who looks exactly like Oliver. Accompanying him is a beautiful woman named Diana, who most definitely catches Robert’s eye, and Mokol, a cat wearing spectacles. During the company’s grand performance for the town, Mokol loses his glasses, and all chaos breaks loose, as the townsfolk become bathed in primary colors based on their inner beings. Smitten with Diana, Robert turns a deep Communist red. However, most of his neighbors reflect different colors.

Reacting with wild abandonment in the film’s trippy centerpiece scene, the townspeople break into a fantastical dance bordering on a riot. Mixing bold color, groovy jazz-like music, and choreography which alternates between telekinetic combat for the undesirable colors, and the Lindy hop for the joyous reds, Cat leaves Disney territory far behind in its rearview mirror.

Obviously, the problem is not the hypocrisy of the townspeople, but that darn cat. As Robert’s students conspire to protect Mokol, his boss leads the efforts to hunt him down. While Cat never explicitly addresses political issues (unless you consider Robert an early proponent of animal rights), it is always difficult not to graft allegorical meaning unto a film produced behind the Iron Curtain in which an authoritarian figure abuses his power until an everyman character stands up to him.

Usually surreal, hallucinogenic films are also dark and moody, but Cat is unusual in this regard. It is a bittersweet film that never loses its sense of innocence, despite the wild scenes from the town square. In the key role of the film, Vlastimil Brodský, best known as the remorseful party boss Ocenás in All My Good Countrymen, portrays Robert’s idealism with charm and genuine likability. Jasny deftly balances the fairy tale elements with his bold visuals, while never letting the film’s pacing flag. The only credibility problem for his fable is the children’s immediate devotion to Mokol, who seems rather lifeless, even with his shades and wardrobe. (It is hard to believe I am critiquing the performance of a cat, but there it is.) Still, the site of Robert’s students carrying Mokol around like the Art of the Covenant, as their elders dive into fountains and behind columns to escape his gaze is worth the price of admission.

Not to overuse the word “charm,” but Cat is totally charming. It is also visually inventive and a thoroughly satisfying cinematic experience. It plays at the Anthology this Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday, with the director himself in attendance on the 19th.