DVD Review: Three Wishes for Cinderella


★★★★☆
For all of the great opportunities that film festivals give to explore the cinema of other cultures, it's always worth remembering that they're curated with international audiences in mind – and often for those with a love of auteur-driven arthouse fare. In many cases, the films that travel well aren't those that achieve domestic success. This could be said of the Czech Republic: UK film fans might associate the country with the Czech New Wave, or a modern vein of satirical social realism, but remain unaware of the national obsession with cinematic fairytales.

Fortunately Second Run DVD have stepped in to release one of the most beloved examples, Václav Vorlícek's wonderful Three Wishes for Cinderella. It's a real charmer and something of a ubiquitous Christmas classic across Europe – playing annually as part of the festive television season everywhere from Germany and Switzerland to Norway, Ukraine and Russia. This is a fairytale princess from the early 1970s who reflected the society of her time, embracing the empowerment of feminism that Disney wouldn't catch up with for a long while to come. This is partly due to the variation of the Cinderella story that is the most common in the region, one in which Cinders thrice appears to bewitch the prince and teasingly disappear. 

Her proclivity for mischief comes to the fore in the winning performance of Libuše Šafránková (who would go on to appear in The Little Mermaid for Karel Kachyňa three years later). Her flirtatious agency is a joy to watch and shares a similar twinkle in the eye to Magda Vášáryová's turn in Jiří Menzel's 1980 comedy Cutting It Short. This Cinderella – or Popelka – is not a naïf locked up in a slimy cellar waiting for magical intervention or to be saved by a handsome prince. Even before she receives three enchanted walnuts that inspire the action of the story, her force of personality is readily apparent.

When she outrides the prince through the snowy forest, it's down to her natural ability – not a fairy godmother – and when she beats the prince at shooting, it's the skills learned from her father. Where Šafránková's Cinderella is concerned, the beautiful dress that she wears to the ball – procured from one of her enchanted nuts – is the icing on the cake of a protracted and playful relationship with the prince. In this instance, Cinders also feels more naturally at ease with animals and her woodland home than the graceful gentility of her animated cousins.

This does manifest in a touch that chimes with Disney-like tradition: when her evil stepmother wants to keep her occupied she pours seeds and grain into a pile on the floor and orders Popelka to separate them. But fear not, a flock of doves fly in the window and sort them while Popelka goes on her adventures. These are shot with a soft radiance by Josef Illík, intensifying the film's folkloric quality and emphasising the dazzling snowy setting that makes this endearing fairytale all the more timeless even as its underlying politics and the irresistible Šafránková give it a decidedly modern slant.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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