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MADE IN PRAGUE: ‘All My Good Countrymen’ (Jasný, 1968), reviewed by Judith Fagelson

ceel.org.uk, Judith Fagelson, 13 November 2015

★★★★

The very existence of Vojtěch Jasný’s iconic work All My Good Countrymen is something of a feat. The screenplay was first drafted in 1951, but was deemed too subversive to be made. It was only in 1968, during the relative freedom of the Prague Spring, that the film saw the light of day. Even then, it was blacklisted following the Soviet invasion less than a year later, becoming one of only four films to be banned ‘forever’. Jasný was forbidden to make any more films and, as a result, emigrated to continue his career abroad. Despite the controversy surrounding All My Good Countrymen in Czechoslovakia, it was entered into the 1969 Cannes Film Festival where Jasný won the award for Best Director. Now, almost half a century later, it’s being screened again in honour of the director’s 90th birthday.

Opening in May 1945, shortly after the end of the Second World War, All My Good Countrymen follows the fate of a small Moravian village and its inhabitants as they undergo a decade and a half of Communist reforms and imposed collectivisation. As farms are seized and party membership grows, tensions mount between those who succumb and those who resist. One farmer, František, becomes an influential figure in the resistance, and corrupt party members do everything in their power to bring him over to their side.

With a plot like that, you might expect All My Good Countrymen to be a fast-paced film full of fiery confrontations, but it’s not. The Communism we see in All My Good Countrymen bears no resemblance to the frenetic industrialisation of cities in the Eastern Bloc. Life moves slowly in this rural setting, and for every shot showing the electrification of a facility, there’s another of rolling hills and horses ploughing the land.

There’s no definitive revolution, no moment of climactic conflict between sides. Instead, we have an agricultural community trying its best to go about its daily business as party membership steadily increases and more and more farm-owners are pressured into collectivising their land.

Despite its sombre theme, the interactions between the village’s motley cast of characters provide moments of comic genius. There’s a kleptomaniac with a lisp, an alcoholic farmer-cum-musician stricken with guilt over the fate of his late Jewish wife under the Nazis, and a ‘Merry Widow’ whose every lover comes to a sticky end. The dynamic between this diverse group of people, made all the more real by the fact that the cast comprises a mixture of trained actors and local residents, is a pleasure to watch. Throughout the film, they continue to go to the local bar, make music, drink, dance and be merry – testimony to the resilience and solidarity of such communities, whatever the circumstances.

Czechoslovak New Wave expert Peter Hames, in his introductory remarks, said the picture was ‘not just politically significant, but aesthetically significant as well’.  That’s certainly true. The impact of All My Good Countrymen comes not just from its powerful critique of European Communism: Jasný shows too in this seminal piece a remarkable ability to bring colour, beauty and humour into even the grimmest of situations.

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This year’s Made in Prague festival runs from November 6th to November 28th, and is organised by the Czech Centre, London. For details of the Festival, please click on the Czech Centre logo below. All My Good Countrymen is released on 23rd November 2015 by Second Run DVD, priced at £12.99.

Source: http://ceel.org.uk/culture/film-theatre/made-in-prague-all-my-good-countrymen-jasny-1968-reviewed-by-judith-fagelson/