Friday, September 12, 2008

Jasny’s Good Countrymen

All My Good Countrymen
Directed by Vojtech Jasny

The four seasons loom large for a provincial Moravian farming village. However, it was roughly eight months of spring—the brief period of Czechoslovakian liberalization known as Prague Spring—that gave Czech auteur Vojtech Jasny a limited window of opportunity to make All My Good Countrymen, considered by many to be a masterwork of the Czech New Wave, but rarely seen due to Communist censorship.

Countrymen was completed shortly after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and banned shortly after its initial screenings. It is no secret why it ran afoul of the censors. As the tale of a peaceful Moravian community ripped apart by the devastating policies of agricultural collectivization, it is hard to think of a film more antithetical to Marxism produced behind the Iron Curtain.

As Countymen opens, hope is in the air. The National Socialist occupiers are gone, and though the Communists are growing in influence, Edvard Beneš is still the democratically elected president. Seven friends make music and carouse together after an honest day’s toil. However, Ocenás the church organist has assumed a leadership role on the local party council, whose actions will forever split the once merry friends.

Frantisek in contrast, has no time for politics or ideological cant. He is a farmer in his soul, which he refuses to sell to the party. At one point he bluntly tells a local party boss: “You treat people like animals.” A taciturn man who leads by example, Frantisek is not unlike the archetypal strong, silent heroes once played by Gary Cooper—the salt of the Earth, almost literally.

As Frantisek is imprisoned, debilitated nearly to the point of death, and eventually hounded to accept leadership of the disastrous collective, Countrymen becomes a grand tragedy, heightened by the elegiac narration. Jasny was inspired by gothic paintings and his sweepings landscapes truly have a painterly look. While Countrymen has a limited color palette, Jaroslav Kucera’s photography makes the farmland sparkle—making it easy to understand how Frantisek could be so emotionally tied to the earth he tills.

While in many ways a pastoral, Countrymen is identified with the Czech(oslovakian) New Wave, and it often shows a kinship with the Nouvelle Vague. Particularly striking are Jasny’s use of freeze frames during several death scenes. It even veers into disconcertingly surreal territory as the villagers cavort in exaggerated animals masks for an unspecified celebration (Christmas, Winter Solstice?) that suggests subtle hints of danger.

Jasny deftly elicited sensitive performances from his cast, particularly Vlastimil Brodský and Radoslav Brzobohatý as Ocenás and Frantisek, respectively. Both give nuanced performances as former friends seemingly opposed to each other, who both struggle with the decisions they face. Also notable is Vladimír Mensík as Jorka Pyrk, the Falstaffian town rogue, facing a prison sentence for undefined (at least to the audience) crimes.

It is easy to see why the Communists banned Countrymen—it is a great film. It speaks directly to the dire consequences of elevating ideology above humanity. Aside from a few bootleg copies circulated underground, it was locked in a vault from 1971 until the Velvet Revolution, so if you have not heard of it before, that was most certainly the intent. It deserves to reach a wide audience now that it is happily available on DVD from Facets. (It also screens next week in New York as part of a Jasny retrospective at the Anthology.) It is highly recommended.