DVD Review: 'All My Good Countrymen'

★★★★☆
It was the early 1950s when Vojtěch Jasný began penning the screenplay for the his most celebrated work, though it seemed unlikely to see the light of day due to its provocative politics. The corruption and failure that slowly infects a small village throughout the narrative is not one attributed to personal greed or petty rivalry (though both are present). In its bones and in its roots, flowing through the Moravian soil, All My Good Countrymen (1969) is an expression of the inherent flaws of the Communist model.

It is hardly surprising that a controlling regime didn't want it affecting hearts and minds - banning it 'forever'. The timing had been perfect for the production with Jasný taking advantage of the artistic freedoms of the Prague Spring in 1968. Before Soviet tanks could roll into Czechoslovakia, re-establishing the previous order and forcing the filmmaker into exile, he got his story onto celluloid. That story may not be the most politically intricate, but it lands its punches amidst startlingly beautiful imagery and thoughtful and deeply humane portrayal of the people.

These are truly rural folk and throughout the film Jasný manages to do what Terrence Davies struggled to in his recent Sunset Song; he crafts an intangible but palpable connection between the characters and the land. As the sublime camera of Jaroslav Kučera watches several friends crossing a field after sleeping off hangovers beneath a tree, they appear to emerge from the earth itself. A year later Kučera would create the astonishing Adam and Eve introduction to Fruit of Paradise made by his wife, Vera Chytilová. This is once again portrait of a post-lapsarian landscape. A local farmer, Frantisek (Radoslav Brzobohatý) precariously stumbles across an unexploded German mine as he ploughs his field in 1945, but he deftly removes it and continues his work. Jasný illustrates that despite occupation and war, the relationship with this land has endured. However, only minutes later, Frantisek struggles across the same field in hard-bitten frost as the new Communist regime lays out its plans. The juxtaposition is absolute; the apple has been bitten.

Frantisek emerges as something of a protagonist, but in reality All My Good Countrymen is a film about a community, about the whole, even as it bows under the weight of internal conflict. At times laugh-out-loud hilarious, and at others heart-wrenchingly poignant, it refuses to vilify individuals. Vlastimil Brodský, who famously played a Nazi collaborator in Closely Observed Trains is the Organist here, easily seduced to the new cause but never treated by the script with anything less than the utmost compassion - just as he, perhaps surprisingly, treats others. There is theft, extortion, the appropriation of property and wealth for the collective, and even murder, but every turn is undoubtedly the work of the ideology, not of the people. Communist ideals are shown to have decayed beyond repair, but even the most selfish and careerist of the local party members is portrayed with tender empathy in his penance during the epilogue. The worst of these people are warm, funny, and resilient. They are flawed, prone to flights of fancy and - in one macabre thread involving a merry widow - cursed, but they are also the enduring Czechoslovakia, desperately trying to retain some semblance of itself beneath the yoke of Communism.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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