THE WHITE DOVE
B&W, 1960, 66m.
Directed by Frantisek Vlácil
Katerina Irmanovová, Anna Pitasová, Karel Smyczek, Vaclav Irmanov
Pavel Jurácek and Jan Schmidt
Starring Pavel Bartl, Pavel Silhánek, Stanislav Michler
Second Run (DVD) (UK R0 NTSC)
Expanding the valuable spotlight placed on often overlook treasures of the Czechoslovak New Wave, UK label Second Run returns here to the terrain of director Frantisek Vlácil, the rediscovered filmmaker behind such films as Marketa Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees. Here he tells a far more streamlined film suitable for general audiences (which the packaging appropriately compares to the later Kes) about a boy caring for a wounded bird, though in this case you can still feel free to run rampant with symbolic interpretations if you so wish. The director's trademark visual flair encourages this as well, with images of entrapment and cages piling up on the way to a surprisingly moving and optimistic ending.
Our tale begins with a young wheelchair-bound boy, Michal (Smyczek), coming upon the titular dove after it gets lost in a storm on the way to the sea. He impulsively wounds it with his air rifle but, goaded on by artist Martin (Irmanov), Michal urgently wishes to nurse it back to health. Meanwhile the bird's intended owner, a young girl, wait for its arrival, and Martin works on producing a stylized print inspired by the bird's arrival.
Simple but visually striking, The White Dove manages to spin visual poetry out of its simple structure with the final fifteen minutes in particular turning into an almost entirely nonverbal feat of storytelling. The idea of a world connected by the behavior of people to each other and the creatures around them is handled with restrained effectiveness, coupled with compositions that become more stylized and powerful as the film progresses. It's certainly a far cry from the animal-themed movies Disney was turning out around the same time.
This actually marks the second English-friendly DVD release following a really underwhelming 2004 U.S. disc from Facets, and while it's undeniably superior, this newer transfer was obviously compromised by the time it hit Second Run's doorstep thanks to some really harsh oversharpening, with halos running rampant during daylight scenes; the second screen grab above is probably the most extreme example. That said, it's still a beautiful film and this marks the most satisfactory version out there.
Fortunately no visual issues plague the second feature, or more accurately, lengthy short film: Josef Kilián, a darkly comic bureaucratic nightmare usually compared to Franz Kafka. Barley shown in its native country and filled with hat tips to another novelist, Jaroslav Hasek, this is the strange chronicle of a nameless man who decides to try out a shop's offer of a short term loan -- of a cat for the day. When he tries to return the feline, the establishment has closed and he's quickly engulfed in a maelstrom of double speak and inexplicable procedures.
Complete with jabs at communism (and particularly the then-recently deceased Stalin), this was the brainchild of Pavel Jurácek (writer of such films as Daisies, Ikarie XB-1, and The End of August at the Hotel Ozone) and Jan Schmidt, who went from this short to a string of features for both the big and small screen well into the '90s. Even if you don't get all the cultural references this often hilarious and disquieting, with unexpected surreal touches cropping up seemingly around every corner. Unlike the main feature, this has never been released on DVD before in any country, and the transfer looks very nice and natural throughout. The cinematography by the great and very prolific Jan Curík (who also shot The Joke and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, not to mention The White Dove) is wonderful and often feels like a dry run for what Polanski would be doing in just a few short years, particularly with Repulsion. The only extra here is the usual essential liner notes booklet with essays by Peter Hames tackling both titles, offering extensive overviews of the main players' careers, and parsing out some of the political and likely literary influences. As for why both films prominently feature cats, well, that's anyone's guess.
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Reviewed on March 14, 2014.