This is a mostly excellent Slovak film about when the Jews were taken away in 1942. It’s a pretty remarkable film and, though I have some minor quibbles, I think I am willing to say it is one of the essential films of 1965.
The film begins with Slovaks out on a Sunday, enjoying themselves as music plays. There is no hint of what’s to come, save for some text on the screen that announces when it is and what will soon happen. As is my wont, I had no idea of what this was about so that message came as a surprise and I was able to forget about it pretty quickly.
And that’s because the film takes its time, setting up the main conflict. Tono (Tony) is a bit of an idiot and the audience shares his ignorance as to world events and events in town. The conflict is pretty transparent once Tono gets his shop but the film handles it pretty subtly. Tono is out of his depth and the film wisely shows us his world, not the larger one.
One of the remarkable things about the movie is how the film plays Tono’s daily life for laughs. From the opening text, we know what’s going to happen and yet the movie is casual and Tono could be living in a comedy, with a slapstick element.
It’s just a super assured film. The second time everyone is out on Sunday, and the band plays, the whole thing has a completely different tenor. It’s one of the more remarkable moments I’ve seen in ’60s European cinema, given what we know.
So yeah, it’s a mostly excellent film. I have only two nitpicks:
- The first is the characterization of Tono’s wife – she is awful, to the point that you almost actually agree with Tono when he attacks her. (Almost.) She doesn’t feel so much a character as a caricature of the classic stereotype of the wife that demands her husband be more successful. The film would be stronger if she was more of a real person, rather than a Jew-fearing nag. She’s irredeemable as is, and it doesn’t make the rest of the film better.
- The second nitpick is less of an issue even though it’s arguably more consequential. I think this film would be an absolute masterpiece with a less morally definitive ending. In some ways, what Tono does is both a bit of a cop out for the story and not realistic. I don’t want to say more, as it would be a massive spoiler. But I do think the film would be better if Tono’s arc resolved slightly more true-to-life.
I’m still hemming and hawing between a 9/10 and a 10/10. And that’s for two reasons, one of which is that the characterization of the wife feels very typical for the time, and I’m not sure I should hold it against the film. The second reason is that the film is pretty fucking remarkable even with its flaws, the kind of courageous film about the Holocaust that Hollywood basically couldn’t make for another 25 years (with the notable exception of The Pawnbroker).
So 10/10 it is.