Dragon's Return [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (5th November 2022).
The Film

Years after he was banished from his home by the village committee, potter Dragon (Veronika' Radovan Lukavský) returns but seemingly not in search of vengeance upon those scapegoated him for the drought and, indeed, already suspect him of causing the current one. After making his appearance known in the local pub where the mayor and village committee – busybodies who mostly push others towards actions through a constant muttering commentary – congregate, Dragon returns to his home and starts setting it order in addition to making his return "felt" by Simon (Shadows of a Hot Summer's Gustáv Valach), one of the men who tried to burn down his cottage and would marry his love Eva (I Served the King of England's Emília Vásáryová). When a forest fire breaks out in the area where the village's cattle are grazing – a catastrophe not blamed on Dragon but on the "women's sorcery" employed to bring rain – the haunting cries of the animals echo throughout the valley.

Although the village committee decides it would be better to slaughter the cattle than to let them continue to suffer, Dragon offers to hike up into the forest and steer the cattle to safety, asking only in return to be able to live in the village and dig clay again. The mayor agrees to the offer, giving Dragon one week to return with the cattle or his cottage will be burnt to the ground. Wary that Dragon might turn the cattle over to smugglers along the Polish border - and also deciding that the animosity between Dragon (who earns back his Christian name Martin) and Simon cannot go unresolved - the committee decide that Simon must accompany be the one to accompany him (despite other willing volunteers). Throughout the journey, Simon regards all of Dragon's acts with suspicion. Although he is repeatedly proven wrong in his assumptions about Dragon, it is ultimately Simon's insecurity over his marriage to Eva that pushes him towards an act that assures that Dragon cannot return home again.

Based on the novel by Dobroslav Chrobak, Dragon's Return on film is a folk tale written in the style of a Slovak school of literature that juxtaposed village existence with contemporary life to expose the fallacy that country life is pure and more genuine - and told by director Eduard Grečner in a modern, free-form cinematic style evocative of the French New Wave filmmakers he admired (particularly Alain Resnais by way of Last Year at Marienbad). The period in Czechoslovakian history during which the film was made also allowed the usage of that school of literature to criticize power structures. Although the film has a timeless look thanks to its rural setting, the farming collective of the village suggests a more contemporary setting. While other films addressed the usages of enforced collective farming for corruption like the masterful Vojtech Jasný'a All My Good Countrymen or even less directly with one of the segments of Jasný's Desire, Dragon's Return does not focus on the personal self-interest of those in power but the manipulation and complicity that allows such structures to maintain, as well as how they persecute people who are not or refuse to be beholden to them.

Dragon is an outcast from the start as an artist. He is a man who does not fit into his surroundings, somewhat unlike the protagonist of The Devil's Trap who is actively trying to search for a water source during a drought using methods that the villagers assume to be witchcraft. Because he does not take part in public life, rumors spread that not only is he responsible for the drought but that he is hoarding resources. The villagers mob his home, ripping over bags that he insists are clay and they insist are flour. When they are proven wrong, they accuse him of tricking them. In a petulant move, Simon creeps up behind him and strikes him the face, blinding him in one eye. The mayor uses his publically-witnessed attempt at retaliation against Simon as an excuse to banish him from the town. Simon is always morose-looking, so it is difficult to tell whether he has shamed the village or just himself with his act, but it seems in the mayor and council buttering him up and stressing his importance in Dragon's proposal that they are just as happy to rid themselves of a reminder of their shameful actions; indeed, they seem during the climax as sure as Simon that Dragon meant to betray them and that he was only allowed to "escape" to return and tell them. Dragon seems to know from the start that he will never be truly accepted, and one wonders whether he has made this attempt at reconciliation as means of show them how rotten they are or out of a need to rid himself of any nagging doubts. One of the many Czech and Slovak directors whose careers were derailed by Soviet normalization, Grečner worked infrequently as a director, with the bulk of his film and television work consisting of directing Slovak dubbing.


First released on DVD by the Slovak Film Institute in an English-friendly but so-so non-anamorphic transfer cropped to 1.79:1, Dragon's Return received an HD restoration and was put out in a high-bitrate, dual-layer, anamorphic OAR 1.66:1 DVD by Second Sight in 2015. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 Blu-ray presumably coems from the same 2K restoration and represents the textures and contrasts of the monochrome cinematography nicely given its reliance on long-lens photography in which the actors are sometimes the only element in sharp focus and are often framed with out of focus foreground occlusions.


The Slovak LPCM 2.0 mono track is wonderfully clean and crisp, accentuating the unnerving score which incorporates choral passages and village whispers alongside minimalist instrumental accompaniment, giving it the aura of a horror movie more so than a drama. Optional English subtitles sport a slightly different translation than the clips in the extras.


Ported over from the DVD is the interview with author/critic Peter Hames (23:14) in which he discusses director Grecner's position preceding the Czech/Slovak New Wave, his collaborations with Stefan Uher – including the masterful The Sun in a Net on which he served as assistant director and gathered sound elements for the score – the director's interest in folk culture as well as his own philosophy of "film as free verse" and his debt to Truffaut, Godard, and Resnais, as well as the political aspects of the tale. The use of telephoto lenses and shallow focus which foregrounds the actors in the composition was initially not a stylistic choice but a way to better disguise the artificiality of the sound stage scenes.

New to the Blu-ray is "Hell is Other People: Eduard Grečner's Dragon's Return" (5:23), an introduction by Ratislav Steranka of the Slovak Film Institute in which he discusses how Grečner rejected the objectivity of his contemporaries in favor of "introverted realism."

Also new is 

"On Dragon's Return" (19:23), in which Grečner recalls being attracted to the source novel in secondary school, particularly the protagonist as outsider artist. Film and literary historian Jelena Paštéková discusses the popularity of lyrical prose among Slovak authors in the interwar years while fine arts theoretician Juraj Mojzis discusses the film's aspects of Greek tragedy and the modern "non-heroic" hero. Film historian Eva Filova contrasts the novel's subtitle of a "fairy tale" against the tone of the film. Both Filova and Paštéková discuss the traditionalist role of women in traditional culture as well as the perfect of past Slovak xenophobia and the violence and intimidation used to impose socialist values and practices on the rural population.


A 20-page booklet is also included that features an essay by Jonathan Owen in which he covers some of the same topics but also includes discussion of the source novel as well as the film's juxtaposition of Christian and pagan motifs and the film's scoring. The booklet also includes a short interview with Grečner about his attraction to the source novel and development of it going back to his time as a student in the fifties.


Dragon's Return utilizes a timeless folk milieu and a school of literature that exposed the fallacy that country life is pure and more genuine to provide a timeless commentary on mechanisms of power and how they treat people who are not or refuse to be beholden to them.


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