Thursday, April 08, 2010

Underrated Movie #59: The Fireman's Ball

Title: The Fireman’s Ball
Year: 1967
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer, Vaclav Sasek
Stars: Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebanek, Josef Valnoha, Josef Kolb, Jan Stokl, Stanislav Holubec

The Story: The petty and venal old men of a small-town fire department hold a retirement ball for a dying comrade, then use the opportunity to round up all the pretty girls in town for an impromptu beauty contest. A circus of bumbling, thievery and corruption turns the event into an ever-escalating farce.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie is beloved by those who know it, but it’s too little seen today.

Why It’s Great:

  1. You might think that nothing could be more unpleasant than a visit to an official gathering in a backward town in a bad time, but the movie is actually a lot of fun. Forman has that magical ability, shared with a few other great ’60s European directors, to invest unhappy situations with a sweetly buoyant charm. They remind us that such situations are rooted in all-too-human folly, and folly is always fun to watch.
  2. Throughout their history, the Czech people had never been free for very long. How do you develop an artistic tradition when you’re not free to say what you feel? You stick your tongue firmly in your cheek. Satire and allegory have always been their stock in trade, even when flourishing under the relative freedom of the “Prague Spring”, as they were in 1967. It’s ironic that this bitterly funny protest was made during that brief window of happiness, but Forman knew enough not to get too happy too quickly. The tanks were already on their way…
  3. Political protest allegories are very hard to write. We understand about five minutes in that everything is going to go very, very wrong, and we know that there’s no way to turn things around without undercutting the political statement. So why watch? Because Forman isn’t just looking to tell us that things are bad, he’s looking to show us how things go so wrong. Having grown up in a corrupt system, Forman has intimate knowledge of how an epic fiasco goes down, step by step, in all its gruesome glory.
  4. There are no idealists who get disillusioned here. Rather, the implicit criticism comes from the fact that everybody, as pleasant as they try to be, is already laboring under the oppressive knowledge of how bad things really are. The mothers already know that they can’t leave their daughters alone with the town fathers. The raffle prize officials know that every prize will be stolen. The true cost of omnipresent corruption is shown in the faces of those who know the fix is in.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Forman’s first major Czech film was Loves of a Blonde. His best American film was One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.

How Available Is It?: It’s on a very nice Criterion Collection DVD.


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