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The virtues of excess

Jesús Palacios

Jakubisko 1Few movie makers are as important to their country as Juraj Jakubisko, the most popular Slovakian director since the sixties. An exceptional witness of the events of his homeland, Jakubisko's peculiar view of reality creates an unconventional, poetic mix of magic, humour and mystery, a universe in which the grotesque and the sublime, the divine and the human co-exist in a baroque delirium. FICX celebrates the work of a master of European cinema with the first retrospective devoted to Juraj Jakubisko in Spain.

In 1967, when New Cinemas were being born, when winds of freedom began to blow in the Eastern Countries thanks to the loosening up of the Soviet grip, a young Slovak film maker, Juraj Jakubisko, released his first long feature, Crucial Years (Kristove roky, 1967). This imaginative and bittersweet autobiographical reflection prompted positive responses from critics and audience alike. The director's next film, The Deserter and the Nomads (Zbehovia a putnici, 1968), was selected to participate in the Mostra in Venice, and Jakubisko’s name began to be recognized as one of the most representative of the Czechoslovak Nova Vlná (New Wave). Among its members were Czechs such as Milos Forman, Jirí Menzel and Vera Chytilová, and Slovaks such as Štefan Uher, Ján Kádar and Juraj Herz. But that same fateful 1968, year of revolutions, Russian tanks put a final stop to the hope of “socialism with a human face” that had found its utopian capital in Prague. Under its banner rallied most of the Eastern European film makers.

Jakubisko’s reply arrived soon after: Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtáckovia, siroty a blazni, 1969), considered to be the best Slovak film of the sixties. This wild, surrealist film, filled with absurd humor, eroticism and melancholy, deals with a trio of young people who create their own universe of free love, craziness and fantasy, beneath the shadow of an abandoned church, whilst all around them the world relentlessly pursues a desolate and devastating war. Buñuelesque, Fellinian, close to Jodorowsky’s panic delirium... after its release at Sorrento’s Festival, Jakubisko’s new film was immediately forbidden by the regime and was not shown again until 1990. The same later happened with See You in Hell, Friends (Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia, 1970). In the 1970s, Jakubisko, like many of his colleagues, was ostracized, and forced to work producing documentaries.
Jakubisko 2
Who was that young director who dared state his dissidence so openly? Juraj Jakubisko already had some experience as a photographer after working in Slovak television when he moved to Prague in 1960 in order to study at the famous FAMU, the Czechoslovak Film and Television school of Performing Arts. The school was set up in 1945, and through its classrooms passed not only the great modern Czech and Slovak directors, but also those from other Eastern countries, such as Kusturica. After graduating in 1965 under the guidance of veteran Václav Wasserman, Jakubisko started working at the Magic Lantern in Prague with the great Alfréd Radok, who also taught Švankmajer. At the same time he made experimental short films, which would pave the way for long features later in his career… and that path was blocked by censorship for almost a decade. Luckily, by the late 1970s, Jakubisko started shooting a new long-length feature, Three Sacks of Cement and a Live Rooster (Tri vrecia cementu a živý kohút, 1976), a black comedy whose release was postponed by the authorities until 1978.

After the death of Stalinism in Bohemia (to paraphrase Švankmajer), the 1980s meant Jakubisko’s rebirth and his consecration with A Thousand-year-old Bee (Tisícrocná vcela, 1983), one of the biggest mega productions of Eastern cinema. It is based on the novel by the Slovak Peter Jaroš, a sentimental, grotesque and tragicomic portrait in the tone of magic realism, of a small Slovak town in the first half of the twentieth century. The film runs for a total of 160 minutes and has become the most watched movie in the history of Slovak cinema. Following the great tradition of fantastic films inspired by fairytale that is an intrinsic part of Czech and Slovak cinema (Juraj Herz, Karel Zeman,...), Jakubisko made The Feather Fairy (Perinbaba, 1985), inspired by a tale by the Grimm brothers based on Slavik folklore and to which he gives a characteristic Fellinian touch. Perinbaba remains one of the favorite movies of Czech and Slovak television channels.

Jakubisko 3Also created for televison was Jakubisko's series aimed at children, which consisted of a witty review of classic horror myths, Frankenstein’s Aunt (Frankensteinova teta, 1987), co-produced with other European countries including Spain, where it was released on la segunda cadena, a secondary channel of Spanish national television. The final fall of Comunism and the Berlin wall was greeted by Jakubisko with irony and irreverence: Its Better to be Wealthy and Healthy Than Poor and Ill (Lepšie byt bohatý a zdravý ako chudobný a chorý, 1992). It is a bittersweet comedy about betrayed friendship, centred on the unlikely adventures of two friends, natural born survivors, after the Velvet Revolution, in the midst of the transformation of the Slovak Republic to a democratic country. The director makes use of the Bohemian picaresque represented by creators like Hasek or Hrabal. Jakubisko's imagery is filled with Fellinian references but has a clear Slavic nature, and delivers sharp criticism of the newborn capitalism and the money fever that threaten to destroy the post-communist world.

The pessimism that underlies Jakubisko’s carnival-like films becomes more explicit in one of later masterpieces, An Ambiguous Report About the End of the World (Nejasná zpráva o konci sveta, 1997), a visually hypnotic chronicle of a small Slovak village forgotten by God. The director unleashes his personal imagery on a rural universe, similar in some respects to that of Kusturica, where wolf packs and Bible plagues co-exist with weddings, circuses, funerals, helicopters, gypsies, forbidden romances and millennium prophecies in a direct portrait of human weaknesses. Complex, ritualistic, magic, tragic and beautiful, it is probably the best summary of the world according to Jakubisko.
After producing with his company Jakubisko Film Slovakia - founded in 1992 together with his partner and favourite actress Deana Jakubiskova - the beautiful, fantastic film Wild Flowers (Kytice. Brabec, 2000) based on poems by Karel Jaromír Erben, Jakubisko continued, quite literally, stripping down human relationships in his sexual comedy Post coitum (2004). It is a tragicomic melodrama about the obsession with sex and possession, a relative of Fellini’s Eight and a Half (8 ½, 1963) and Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, 1988, filled with visual inventions and black humour.
Perfectly coherent with his style and aesthetic obsessions, with his original and permanent calling as a painter, an artist and a photographer, as well as his commitment to rescuing Slovak history and tradition, Bathory (2008) meant Jakubisko’s international presentation in the new millennium. The most expensive film in Czechoslovak history is a personal recreation of the life and legend of Ersebet Báthory, the Bloody Countess, in which the director chooses the revisionist version that turns the Hungarian noblewoman into a victim of a conspiracy. In any case, far from the boring and grossly feminist The Countess (2009) by Julie Delpy, Jakubisko’s film explores from a plot and visual perspective all of the mythical, historical and archetypical possibilities of the character: her vampirism, her relationship to sorcery, an erotic adventure with Caravaggio himself, battles and tricks… ending in her clash with Count Thurzó, brilliantly portrayed by Karel Roden. Once again the director uses his excessive iconography, indebted in this case to the art of Bosch, Breughel and the Caravaggisti, and which is translated into his tragicomic and grotesque universe by means of his personal surrealism.

Bathory, an ambassador of Slovak cinema, is just the pinnacle of the surreal, carnival-like baroque cathedral that isJakubisko 4 Jakubisko’s cinema, from his beginnings on the crest of the New Wave until today. It is a career based on visual excesses, unleashed mannerism and unbridled passions that constitutes a true Human Comedy… the Slovak way.

Bathory (2008)

Post coitum (2004)

An Ambiguous Report About the End of the World (Nejasná zpráva o konci sveta, 1997)

It's Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy Than Poor and Ill (Lepsie byt bohaty a zdravy ako chudobny a chory, 1992)

Sitting on a Branch, Enjoying Myself (Sedím na konári a je mi dobre, 1990)

The Feather Fairy (Perinbaba, 1985)

A Thousand-year-old Bee (Tisícrocná vcela, 1983)

Postav dom, zasad strom (1980)

Three Sacks of Cement and a Live Rooster (Tri vrecia cementu a živý kohút, 1976)

See You in Hell, Friends (Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia, 1970)

Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtáckovia, siroty a blazni, 1969)

The Desertor and the Nomads (Zbehovia a putnici, 1968)

Crucial Years (Kristove roky, 1967)