Pearls of the Deep [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th January 2024).
The Film

The short stories of Bohumil Hrabal defied the Czech censors with their apolitical nature despite a preoccupation with socially-marginalized characters and defied genre with their tendency to structure of using setting and action as a mere backdrop and mining humorous, crude, and superficial conversation for the titular Pearls of the Deep, the subject of this anthology which were not the directorial debuts of any of the directors but – with the exception of Jan Nemec whose feature debut Diamonds of the Night was released the previous year (although presumably his short was shot before given the earlier release of Juraj Herz's The Junk Shop which was shot for the anthology but exceeded any of the other entries in length – their first opportunity to have their short work by wider audiences as the main feature rather than tacked onto another film like the aforementioned Herz short.

In "The Death of Mr. Balthazar" from Jirí Menzel (Larks on a String), the titular race car driver does not even expire onscreen as the focus is on a couple (Pavla Marsálková and Ferdinand Kruta) bickering over their stalled car. The only thing they appear to have in common is their love of automobile mechanics as they meticulously service the motor and then spend the drive attempting to identify passing bikes by the sound of their motors. Their uncle (Emil Iserle) – it is not clear just whose uncle he is, but they seem to regard him as a fixture rather than a person – as he contributes white noise to them in the form of reminiscences of his past meetings with famous people (bishops, not race car drives). As bikes race by mostly offscreen, the camera observes the trio along with an old man (Alois Vachek) wandering about also talking to anyone he encounters, and the other spectators some of whom are perched on the branches of trees waiting for the inevitable (if not Balthazar then someone else). Characters talk at cross purposes, but they seem to be competing to be more interesting rather than right. Although the husband has blamed his wife for the state of their car's disrepair because she used it to move six neighbors and a bedstead, he boasts to others of his vintage automobile's stamina as he embellishes the anecdote. Similarly, the husband always corrects his wife on the make of the passing motorbikes during the drive but boasts of her talent to others. In the very last, hilarious moment, the three family members make a connection which is then deliberately or inadvertently severed. Menzel would again adapt Hrabal again for his Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains.

Nemec's "The Imposters" are a singer (Milos Ctrnacty) and a journalist (Frantisek Havel), both of whom are each other's sole company in their last days in a shared hospital room. The singer boasts of all of his famous roles and his co-stars while the journalist discusses the famous stories he broke, both strenuously attempting to one up the other up to the point of one of them overexerting themselves and needing medical attention. It becomes quite obvious to the viewer that both are embellishing; but, even if they are outright lying as the disaffected hospital staff accuse them posthumously, does it really matter (certainly not compared to the menacing verbal sparring of Nemec's follow-up The Party and the Guests)?

"The House of Joy" from Evald Schorm (Prague Nights) is the residence of a local folk artist (Václav Zák) whose perspective first announces itself to visitors in a strangely childish rendition of a cow on the wall of his house that faces the road. The visitors are a pair of insurance salesmen who respond to the artist's desire for company by trying to upsell him on their policies as he gives them a tour of his home whose walls form a sprawling mural. Their opposing worldviews become apparent in the prurient interest the salesmen take in glimpses of nudity within the pastoral canvas. Only upon meeting the artist's mother (Josefa Pechlatová) – who confirms the nature of their living situation which simultaneously provides for their shelter but also precludes such extravagances as life insurance – do they realize that the pair are more likely to cause accidents than suffer them with the divine aid of sheet metal statue of a crucified Christ.

The most complex, mysterious, and moving story is "At the World Cafeteria" from Vera Chytilová (Daisies) in which the proprietress (Alzbeta Lastovková) of a cafeteria hosting a rowdy wedding party discovers the body of a hanging woman in one of the restroom stalls. As the members of the wedding party mill about outside the picture windows in the rain after the drunken groom has been detained for punching one of the officers awaiting the coroner, the proprietress lets in a strange man (Vladimír Boudník) searching for his girlfriend. As he describes his life as an artist and his girlfriend's suicidal ideation – going so far as weighing the pros and cons of various methods for the two of them – the proprietress and the audience dread the positive identification of the body as his girlfriend; although there is also the possibility of it being another girl who strayed into his studio after discovering the artist creating death masks for his wife and himself and asked that he do the same (we never know which of the women is struggling to remain clam under the plaster in the flashback). Meanwhile, the wedding party's bride (Vera Mrázkova) has failed to charm the officer into releasing her husband of a few hours and is determined to go home with someone. He and the viewer never learn the identity of the dead woman as the artist and the bride rush out into the stormy night with different ideas of affirming their existence.

"Romance" is the theme and concern of the final story by Jaromil Jires (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) as a young plumber's assistant (Ivan Vyskocil) and a Roma girl (Dana Valtová) meet outside a cinema after a screening of a swashbuckler film. Caught up in the film's high emotions, they go back to her apartment to make love. In spite of taking payment from the young man – in place of the sweater she asked him to buy after spotting it in the window of a closed shop – the woman is insulted when he treats it as a transactional exchange. As they stroll about the city, she regales him with stories of gypsy life while he keeps a running monologue of concerns including what his mother might think of him being with a Roma girl and his hatred of his boss who they meet on the tram (especially when he decides he can be overly-familiar with his apprentice's girl). When the couple come across a Roma camp sleeping on mattresses in the open air, the image is one of freedom rather than deprivation.


While Pearls of the Deep has been unavailable on home video in the U.K. following its 1968 theatrical release – and the Czech PAL DVD was one of the few that did not feature English subtitles – the film was released twice on DVD in the U.S., first in a typically poor PAL-to-NTSC conversion from Facets and then in a far more satisfactory transfer as part of Criterion's Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave box set. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray marks the debut of a new Czech National Film Archive 4K restoration. While each episode has different lighting styles and differing treatment of location exposure, this is overall a nice improvement on the Criterion edition. Shadow detail is marginally better in the darker interiors and the few night exteriors while the predominately white and gray "The Imposters" threatened to blend the whites of the actors' pallor with the backgrounds and their hospital gowns, but the slightly darker grade of the film overall lends the film a greater sense of depth in the monochrome episodes while the full color "House of Joy" reveals a greater variegation of colors in the artist's "primitivist" paintings than one would expect of the naive-seeming approach.


The 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono audio track is free of any defects with clear post-dubbed dialogue, mostly understated sound effects apart from the offscreen race cars and the auto accidents caused by the artist's Christ sculpture. The score rarely calls attention to itself, even to underline humor. Optional English subtitles are free of any noticeable errors.


While Second Run's other Czech titles have usually been well-supplemented, extras on Pearls of the Deep are sparse but relevant. First up are two shorts created for the film but not included in the final cut. "A Boring Afternoon" (14:10) from Ivan Passer – previously included on Second Run's Blu-ray of Intimate Lighting – and "The Junk Shop" (31:38) from Juraj Herz – previously included on Second Run's Blu-ray of The Cremator – the latter not included due to its longer length.

"About Cats, Beatniks and All Sorts of Other Things" (12:11) is a 1967 short film on writer Hrabal, the content of which is accurately conveyed as the narrator reveals that he had a conventional line of questions prepared by Hrabal steered the conversation away from himself to his friends including some noted colleagues.

The disc closes with the restoration trailer (1:12).


Housed with the disc is a twenty-three page booklet featuring an essay by Peter Hames who provides background on the shorts and speculation about what attracted the filmmakers to Hrabal (who cameos in the film), noting that Zák and Boudník were not only real life artists but the actual subjects who inspired the Hrabal stories, the presence of other behind the scenes future Czech talents like cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (Morgiana) and operator/Milos Forman regular cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek (Amadeus), as well as revealing that the stories come from both collections "Pearls of the Deep" and (appropriately) "The Palaverers" along with a brief overview of other Hrabal cinematic adaptations.


Five (well technically, seven) filmmakers mined the works of Bohumil Hrabal for Pearls of the Deep and come up with some subtle and moving observations about Czech inner lives during the period.


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