BluRay/DVD Reviews

ALL MY GOOD COUNTRYMEN

By • Jan 18th, 2009 •

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A cast of beautifully intricate characters populates a tiny Moravian village in central Czechoslovakia, and we watch as they are divided from each other by communism, superstition, jealousy, and tragedy. In the spring of 1945 we find them all celebrating their recent liberation. They dance, drink, play music and sing, and then doze off underneath a massive old tree and a sky full of stars. Love is in the air as, Bertin (Pavel Pavlovsk) and The Merry Widow (Drahomira Hofmanová) wander off to be alone, and Ocenás (Vlastimil Brodsk) remarks that “There are some things you need only two people for.” The film stays with these characters from the coming of Soviet communism to the winter of 1958 (though there is an “Epilogue” which seems to take place sometime in the 1960’s).

A complete synopsis of the film would run far too long to fit within a review – the original screenplay was more than six hours long – yet director Vojtech Jasny masterfully compressed his story into just under two hours. There is so much story here, so much character, that it really must be watched to be appreciated; a mere synopsis is an insult.

The directing and acting are all spot on, and it is easy to see why Jasny was so important to the Czech new wave. Credit must also be given to the haunting images of cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera, without whose efforts the film’s status as a masterpiece might be suspect. The death sequences in the film represent a bit of the brilliant collaboration between Jasny and Kucera, which were shot one frame at a time in a kind of “live-action stop motion”. Visually this effect can be replicated today by simply slowing the shutter speed of a camera, though at the time far more laborious methods were necessary.

On the DVD is a small section which explains the efforts in restoring this film to its original appearance, and there is a short clip in which the restored and un-restored versions are viewable in split screen. It’s comforting to know that the version you’re watching is as scratch-free as possible, yet I wonder how close the colors are to what an audience member would have seen projected from the original 35mm. They seem somehow less saturated than I would expect, though perhaps I’ve simply grown accustomed to modern film stocks.

Also, I must say that the subtitles are far from perfect. At times they have too little screen time, and I had to ride the pause button to read everything. When I did, I discovered the subtitles had occasional typos and grammatical errors, and found myself wishing for a more carefully edited version. Still, I never had any difficulty in making sense of dialogue or action so, despite the imperfect subtitles, the film is perfectly watchable and enjoyable.

Though the DVD does have an interesting interview with director Vojtech Jasny, it is sadly lacking in a director’s commentary track. For that, you will need to go to something of an extreme measure, such as taking Vojtech’s directing class at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, as I did. I must admit, I feel somewhat blessed to have seen this film accompanied by his in-class commentary. From that unique experience I can assure you that all of the characters and events in this film are real, even the Merry Widow and her four dead lovers.

ALL MY GOOD COUNTRYMEN was well received at Cannes, receiving an award for best director, a “Technical Grand Prize Special Mention”, and a nomination for the Golden Palm. Director Vojtech Jasny released the film during a very brief period of Czech history, referred to as the “Prague Spring”, when communist reformer Alexander Dubek was in power, which lasted only from January 5th to August 21st when the Soviet Union invaded. Shortly after the invasion, Jasny was forced into exile, and ALL MY GOOD COUNTRYMEN was banned. The Facets Video DVD release of this film is passable, but I do hope someday for a new version, with an updated subtitle track and director’s commentary.

Personally, I think this is Vojtech Jasny’s best film. Some would disagree with me and say that CASSANDRA CAT, an earlier work, with its pioneering use of color, is better. In both films the writer/director’s sense of humor (which is at times both ironic and farcical) is present. But ALL MY GOOD COUNTRYMEN is a better outlet for his sense of tragedy, which is exceptional. The film is a masterpiece, the high point of a brilliant man’s career, and I urge you to see it.

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