The 1968 Czechoslovakian film All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobrí rodáci) is a tremendous piece of cinema. It’s the kind of picture one watches on several occasions across a lifetime, both to better understand what it has to say and also to feel more attuned to the culture and history it represents. The film feels epic in scope, despite coming in at under two hours in length, and this is largely because of its focus on a single setting across a dozen or so years, with numerous wonderful and ugly things happening in the interim. Director Vojtech Jasný also wrote it, putting in a decade’s worth of work to make what would become his signature film. It would be the last feature he’d get to direct in his home country for decades, as Jasný was effectively banned from filmmaking as a result.
The movie begins with singing in a church service and soon enough includes a joyous, celebratory scene inside a beer hall. It’s 1945, World War II has just ended in Europe and there’s obvious cause for such happiness. That the film is able to mix in these ritualistic occasions of gaiety alongside moments of disturbing and terrible actions allows it to capture a remarkable sense of dimensionality. Every day is black and white until they mesh into the grey. There’s also a terrific early scene showing two young boys, dressed identically, as they encounter one of the men, a tailor, from the main group of characters in an idyllic field. The boys have pistols – real guns with real ammunition – and they begin firing. It’s a startling exchange. There’s a distinct destruction of innocence element at work in this sequence.
It feels somewhat reductive to claim Jasný is simply focusing on a septet of friends because there’s much more at work here, with its novel-like breadth, but the majority of the picture can indeed be filtered through the interactions which involve these men. As the year advances to 1948 and a white horse runs through the snow, we soon see an exchange involving a butcher cutting meat with a cleaver. An odd scene plays out where blood gets splattered onto the face of the other man. The violence tends to sneak up on you in this film but it’s entirely present. Most prominently, perhaps, it comes to the fore when we see Bertin, one of the men and a postal worker, shot directly by a gunman. It’s such a startling scene, perhaps more directly than any other, and it’s also the first inclination that we’re dealing with death in a significant way in the film.
The redheaded “merry widow” who we’d just seen cavorting with Bertin earlier manages to add intrigue to this secondary theme of death. Either through poor luck or circumstance she becomes involved with a few of the men who later suffer untimely deaths in this village. Her exact role is never fully explained but it’s nonetheless a curious element. As she sings while watering her garden and wearing Bertin’s postman hat, a lyrical quality emerges to trouble the viewer just as confidently as it carries us from one scene to the next.
Especially prominent early on is the bespectacled Ocenáš who later abandons the village because of the frequent threats. These warnings pop up throughout the picture and are portrayed as a result of tactics of intimidation to join Communist efforts. It’s a frightening proposition we see: sign and be left alone or refuse only to be constantly and significantly pressured to do so. Death seems to await many of those who resist among the group of seven. The political implications here are surely a factor in what caused the film to be “banned forever” in 1973 after the Soviet invasion.
Still, a great film needs to be able to fully transcend any and all limitations, including political ones. As with so many of the Eastern European works released by Second Run, All My Good Countrymen does just that and stands mightily as an astonishing work of art even when isolated from its political context. The reality of modern film viewing is fluid. It’s unattached to any such political movements and those viewers unaware or unwilling to fully immerse themselves in the necessary context shouldn’t be punished. The truly excellent artistic endeavors always exist outside the boundaries in which they were created, and All My Good Countrymen is no different. The film is a miracle of narrative expression.
2.84GB | 2h 00mn | 788×576 | mkv