I've been eagerly awaiting a collection like this, spotlighting the burst of energy & imagination that was the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, for a long time. During the short period that it flourished, before the crackdown following the Prague Spring, it allowed young directors to respond to their world & its immense changes with very personal, almost Surrealist films. The grim reality of everyday life, as well as the struggle to resist that reality imposed from without, was dissected with humor, absurdity, and often avant-garde techniques. Yet it was always rooted in centuries of Czech culture.
The first film, "Pearls of the Deep", offers five short films from the five directors whose full-length films comprise the rest of the collection. These short pieces are in a fabulist, sometimes Kafkaesque vein; the Surrealist influence is also present, as it filtered in from the cultural explosion of the 1960s worldwide. This initial anthology is a good primer: if you like what you see here, you'll probably like the full-length films. If the short films seem too bizarre, then you might want to pass on the rest.
But you'd be missing some wonderful films if you did!
"Daisies" is a startling & cheerfully anarchic story about two teenage girls living according to whim & appetite, without regard for consequences. Almost psychedelic in presentation, it lets the girls revel in their own desires, offending propriety with glee as they reject everything that the status quo has to offer as a way of life.
"A Report on the Party and Guests" is definitely in Kafka territory, as a simple picnic turns into a nightmare when authority figures appear to impose their rules over everyone & everything. The humor here is dark indeed, as conformity & obedience at all costs becomes the order of the day. It's a potent enough film that it was banned in its own country, as it struck too close to home for the real authorities.
"Return of the Prodigal Son" delves into the psychological depths, as a man who once attempted suicide struggles but fails to adjust to society once more. Alternating between the mental hospital & the occasional escape into the outside world, the film is sometimes heartbreaking but always compassionate. After all, the struggle with alienation & despair is still all too common in today's world.
"Capricious Summer" is the most light-hearted of the films, reminding me at times of a slightly more intellectual "Three Men in a Boat" or "Last of the Summer Wine" with its trio of middle-aged men living in a comfortably familiar rut ... until an itinerant magician/tightrope walker & his beautiful assistant come to town. The attempts of the trio to seduce the young woman are comic & rueful. She's clearly in control of the situation at all times, and the three men are forced to face up to age & the waning of their own masculine power.
"The Joke" is an adaptation of the Milan Kundera novel, giving us a searing portrait of a man betrayed & punished for an essentially trivial act. In his single-minded drive for vengeance, to make someone, anyone pay for what happened to him, he manages to destroy himself. Even his seemingly successful act of revenge turns out to be empty & hollow.
As you can see, this collection is multi-faceted. All the films are well-crafted & visually beautiful, both in pristine black-&-white & in that particularly 1960s color, which could be either nebulous pastels or vividly bright. And while there's plenty of food for thought here, perhaps it's best to simply experience them first, then think about them later, in retrospect, then watch them again. For anyone who enjoys art house films that both entertain & provoke, this collection is most highly recommended!