Tracy Likes This One: Rarely-Screened Classic Films From Czechoslovakia and Mexico

Nov 9, 2023 at 1:01 am
Tracy Likes This One: Rarely-Screened Classic Films From Czechoslovakia and Mexico
Victims of Sin (Víctimas del pecado) 
Nov. 17 & 18
Cassandra Cat (Az prijde kocour)
Nov. 18 & 19
$12 / $8 for Speed Members
speedmuseum.org 

New Wave Cinema began in the late 1950s in Paris, with Agnes Varda, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Goddard among others creating a new movement to expand filmmaking beyond traditional narrative film, exploring creative storytelling using experimental techniques. In France, this breaking away from tradition meant leaving big studio money and control out of the process. Across the way in communist Czechoslovakia, it meant rebelling against government control. Officially starting in 1963 with Milos Forman’s “Black Peter,” the Czech New Wave films were made in direct opposition to Socialist Realism films prescribed by the government. Writer/director Vojt?ch Jasný is not considered one of the forerunners of the the Czech New Wave, being a little older than those darlings right out of art school, but his 1963 film “The Cassandra Cat” (Az prijde kocour) is an early example of the whimsical style that characterizes so many of the Czech New Wave classics. 

In a small Eastern European village, a creative teacher is butting heads with his boss, a strict traditionalist who feels repression is the best way to get the students to behave and mature. Rounding out the townsfolk is a gossip, a drunk, a layabout, a hardworking matriarch, and their children, all of which are watched by the narrator. This borderline fairy tale setting tips into full fantasy when a circus comes to town, complete with a magician and a beautiful acrobat, accompanied by the titular cool cat, wearing sunglasses. This tabby earns his title as Cassandra because, if his sunglasses are removed, he reveals the true colors of the humans he gazes upon. All this truth telling upsets the town’s façade, and brings about a clash of generations, as the young and creative school children try to stand up for their own values and rights. 

Besides the obvious comparisons of the headmaster to communist control of the population, this film is markedly new wave because of its stylized use of color and film within film techniques. Though not as romantic or heartbreaking as France’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” there are some parallels in the use of color and music between both films, with “Umbrellas”released the following year. It also reminded me in a strange way of the first two seasons of “Twin Peaks.” Its large cast of quirky characters behaving inexplicably while being observed by an outsider felt like the light side of David Lynch, but, thankfully, without all the murder. 

The Cassandra Cat was very popular at home, but following the Soviet invasion and crackdown during the Prague Spring it was banned, due to its clear anti-authoritarian message, like many other Czech New Wave classics. Jasný, like Milos Forman and Jan Nemec, left for North America. He taught at many film schools, including Columbia. Recently, he became slightly internet famous when a student tweeted about a story he told in class about making a film about ‘a cat with sunglasses.” That short sentence contains so much potential, and I am happy to say that the film delivers a colorful look at resistance in the face of governmental control. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we go back 12 years to 1951 during the golden age of Mexican cinema, to a film that that wears its classic cinema influences like a badge. Rarely screened in the U.S., “Victims of Sin” (Víctimas del pecado) is a perfect specimen of a woman’s picture, told through a film noir lens accompanied by exhilarating musical numbers. 

Violeta is a cabaret singer and dancer in Mexico City who gives up her career to raise a baby she rescues, only to be trailed by the violent pimp Rodolfo, just released from prison, and the baby’s father. Played by the gorgeous Ninón Sevilla, Violeta is much like a Cuban-Mexican Marlena Dietrich or Rita Hayworth, and VOS owes much to films like “Lady from Shanghai” and “Blonde Venus.” But that comparison is a starting point, not the end of the conversation. Sevilla is an icon all her own, one that frequently showcases African, Caribbean, and Cuban dance, and specializes in starring in stories about Mexico City’s underbelly. Director Emilio Fernández’s camera is utterly confident, with precise movements down shadowy alleys and in rowdy bars as much as across stages during overwhelmingly well-choreographed cabaret scenes. If you know nothing about Mexican cinema, consider this your gateway film to both these talents, and a wide world of gorgeous cinema on the other side. 

Both of these films are 4K restorations and look incredible, with crisp lines and vivid contrasts. It is highly unlikely we will get the chance to see either of them on a big screen again. Don’t miss out!