Review: Pictures of the Old World

Filmed in 1972 but not released until 1988 due to censorship by the communist Czechoslovakian government, this documentary by filmmaker Dusan Hanak qualifies as the Slovakian cognate of Griel Marcus’s description of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes as a window into the “old, weird America.” Hasak sought rural folk who were old enough to remember what Slovakia was like in the previous century, using pictures taken many years before by a Soviet photographer. The Czechoslovakian authorities objected to the fact that the interviewees tended to rhapsodize about their lives prior to the communist takeover in the late 1940s, but it seemed to have less to do with resentment toward the regime than the usual nostalgic impulses. In any event, Hanak seemed more interested in pre-World War I reminiscences. 

But the reason Pictures of the Old World has been called the greatest Slovakian film of all time has more to do with the strangeness of the stories, which often veer off into philosophizing and religious rapture. These people are so bound to the soil that they can’t even conceive of a political dimension to their lives. Though their memories are sharp despite their advanced ages, they live in the present with a kind of vengeance. “If I didn’t drink I’d be useless,” says one man with regard to the strife that has infected his marriage for half a century. In fact, there are more than a few tales of wives taking axes to their husbands. Marriage seems to figure in every interview, as well as death, which, of course, is just around the corner. “I’ll die this year,” says one old woman without any indication of fear, “I can feel it.” Also, more than one person says they are looking forward to the afterlife because this one is just too hard. “I don’t know how to rest,” says a grizzled farmer. When Hanak tries to elicit what these people find of value in their lives they have no comprehension of what he’s after. Life is something you get through. 

But it’s not as if the subjects are completely removed from the world. One goes on and on about the 1969 moon landing, and offers his own theories about space travel and the science behind it. Another shows off his facility with the French language even though he doesn’t seem to remember how he obtained it. In fact, the only constant in the interviews is that the men invariably drink (“alcohol is excellent”) and the women are invariably miserable (“I only know sadness”). Both seem to believe they were put on earth to work, and resent it. In their honesty the viewer can discern not only how people of a previous century thought and dreamed, but how it affected their speech and behavior. It’s a window not just into the old, weird Slovakia, but an entirely different planet.

In Slovakian. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Pictures of the Old World home page in Japanese

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