Forty years on, the still, small voices of Ivan Passer`s only Czech-made feature Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení) continue to resonate with undiminished charm. This casual-seeming chronicle of a weekend in the countryside of latter-day Bohemia, where two old friends meet up to make music again and reflect how differently their lives turned out, is an apparently artless collection of comical vignettes of everyday existence that cleverly construct a quietly devastating portrait of illusions crumbling and ambitions unfulfilled.
Shot in the sultry summer of 1965 on real locations in Tabor, the film was premiered at Cannes in the following year, perhaps ironically winning their Youth Prize, and an ageless international reputation. After the incursion of the Russians into Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the subsequent stifling of the ‘Prague Spring’, Passer went into exile in the United States, where a career of not quite a dozen different American features (most memorable perhaps being Cutter’s Way, aka Cutter and Bone, starring Jeff Bridges, which was screened at Venice in 1981) ever brought anything like the plaudits for his contributions to the birth of the Czech New Wave, alongside his close collaborators Miroslav Ondricek and Milos Forman. Intimate Lighting was theatrically released in the United States late in 1969, winning the director a Special Award from the National Society of Film Critics in 1970. Thanks to the 'Velvet Revolution' in his homeland in 1989, the film has since found renewed fame at the Berlinale - in 2002 - and Passer has been belatedly feted at the spectacularly regenerated Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. He continues to reside in the United States.
Intimate Lighting could be described as a dramatic comedy in which nothing very much happens - many times over. It charts the course of a music-, beer-, and slivovitz-fuelled weekend visit by a town mouse to a country mouse. Petr is a professional soloist and brings his very modern mistress to the highly provincial home - self-built at that, every brick counted - of his old friend from the music academy, nicknamed Bambas, who is now weighed down by the responsibilities of the post of Head of the local Music School, and the demands of family, crying kids and querulous parents-in-law, not to mention sundry hens roosting in his modest Lada. The gentle flood of ironic contrasts, glancingly offered by the 71-minute film, are witty and affectionate, rather than knowing or moralistic.
The tone is set right from the opening credits which in crisp black and white (co-cinematographer was Miroslav Ondricek, who also lit Milos Forman`s first, Czech features as well as his award-winning ´Hollywood` productions) are strung across a school blackboard, in front of which a somewhat harassed conductor is eventually revealed haranguing a mostly elderly all-male orchestra as they merrily murder Dvorak' s Cello Concerto. They are apparently rehearsing for a large-scale concert which is to be graced by a visiting soloist. Bambas (Karel Blasek) is first sighted typing in his office, captured at the machine, before he gets up and passes through an adjacent music lesson into the rehearsal room where he takes up his instrument (which, as we later learn, like his fishing rod, is one of the few things that seem to infuse his humdrum existence with any hint of passion or pleasure). When quizzed by the conductor, Bambas assures him that he has asked the virtuoso to arrive a day before the concert to allow time to rehearse with them all. Tickets have apparently been selling well for the event.
The camera pans across the players, all - save one pre-teenage boy - of rather advanced years, and its movement continues, to reveal in silhouette the arrival by train of Petr (Zdenek Bezusek, his chiselled features vaguely resembling an ageing Paul Newman) and his attractive girlfriend Stepa (played by Vera Kresadlova, looking like a darker-haired Julie Christie). The couple are met, in a circling motion, by Bambas, who takes them to his house, which is first seen through its metal-grille gate.(Later, when Stepa post-parandially prowls around the garden, she is framed by the wire netting, which seems to trap souls within the homestead as much as protect it from possible invaders.)
Wife, mother-in-law, tiny but noisy children, are duly and deftly introduced and the plot-less narrative unfolds, with only the presence of Forman regular Jan Vostrcil trying to impose himself as a bon viveur and ladies`man. He invites the visitors to join a funeral where he and Bambas earn pocket-money by playing sad songs for the mourners. ("People enjoy different things everywhere", opines the sagacious old man, "but sorrow is always the same".) After the service and solemnly-observed burial, a lively wake sees the musicians playing a different tune as grannies dance and beer and home-made schnapps flow like water. At home, the cooked chicken is ritually apportioned (a delightfully amusing sequence sees the hapless bird literally fly from the plate of one self-sacrificing guest to the next!) and the men retire to mangle Mozart while the women exchange reminiscences, Grandma revealing that she too considers herself as modern a lass as Stepa, while the children, thankfully, doze in another sun-lit room. Stepa parades foundling kittens to Petr`s evident indifference but later, after some discreet tussling behind closed doors (to the clear delight of Grandpa in the next room), in the dead of night the old school-friends get together for a prolonged session listening to music, raiding the larder, and lubricating their dreams with drink.
Bambas encourages Petr to pick up his instrument and set off with him into the world outside, to start anew, as itinerant musicians. But on the brow of the hill, car-lights remind us that Petr is still wearing his pyjamas, and there is no escape. Sunday sees the old friends at the table on the alfresco terrace, mightily hung-over, as the family re-assembles for another meal. They toast with Grandma`s newly-made eggnog, but it is so solid it sticks in their glasses and the film ends with the characters frozen in long-shot, forever caught in their place in the world.
Rich in amusing little incidents, and sometimes surreal quotidian details, Intimate Lighting unassumingly sets up its contrasts between town and country, young and old, with the feel of a modern-day fairy-tale (Stepa is harmlessly courted by the village idiot, unselfconsciously offering him a bite of her apple); but there is no lecturing from the director at all, no pointing of any moral, let alone any politically-motivated assessment. Like all true classics it is so sharply anchored in its time and place that it cannot help but speak, if softly, to viewers far away in every sense. It remains a refreshing distillation of life, or something like it.
-- Phillip Bergson