Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
4 - 10 November 1999
Issue No. 454
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

The banality of the banned
By Mohamed El-Assyouti

Stephen Uher's Sun in a Net (1962)
Stephen Uher's Sun in a Net (1962)

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Last week's Slovak film festival, a cooperative effort between the American University in Cairo and the Slovak Embassy, had the singular virtue of exposing local audiences to films they really would never, otherwise, have a chance to see. And fortunately, though the forgotten, ignored or else once-banned films that comprised the festival were generally mediocre, included in the programme was at least one major achievement, Stephen Uher's 1962 film Sun in a Net.

In Sun in a Net two young lovers, Fajolo and Bela, in the habit of dating and sunbathing on a roof-top or on a fisherman's jetty on the Danube, split up as casually as they had started their relationship. Fajolo is an amateur photographer, obsessed with capturing images of the hands of ordinary people. He believes that hands, unlike faces, never lie. He rejects Bela's invitation to meet at her house, where her younger brother and blind mother live: "I wouldn't betray your mother with you," he says. He goes to work in the fields, seeking a closer relationship with nature, and begins a fleeting affair with a village girl. Meanwhile Bela dates a more positive young man who proposes to take advantage of her mother's blindness and meet in her house. Fajolo eventually seeks to return to her but, discovering she had read a letter he wrote to her new lover, he leaves her in utter disappointment.

Later Bela takes her blind mother to the fisherman's jetty where she used to sunbathe with her lovers, only to discover that the fisherman is dead, the the Danube has become shallow and stagnant, and that the sun rarely shines on the spot. Yet as she describes the by-gone charm of the place to her blind mother, she pretends that nothing has changed.

Uher's cinematic idiom is as exquisite and deliberate as any of his European contemporaries, including Antonioni, Bergman and Marker. The complex characterisation, minimalist narrative and sober depiction of emotion are superbly measured in a cinematic poem that utilises still photography, frozen images, motifs of reflection -- on water, mirror and glass surfaces -- and solar phenomena -- eclipse, for instance -- to emphasise the inner struggles of the characters in an indifferent world.

Elo Havetta's Wild Lilies (1972) revolves around World War One veterans who have returned home to find little else beyond a descent into either beggary or lunacy. Hejges, a clarinet player, accepts the vagabond life of a tramp but is abused by his fellow beggars who steal his clarinet. Peasant landlady Paula hosts him and responds to his advances. She prevents him from wandering off, but when Krujbel, an indigent theologian drives off with her carriage, Hejges is accused of stealing it.

Wild Lilies is shot mostly in black and white though scenes are punctuated by the use of filters: yellow for morning, green for fields, red for love scenes, yellow again for night interiors and blue for moonlit exteriors. Havetta describes his film as based entirely on polyphonous musical compositions. The characters develop like a leitmotif, coming together for a clamorous finale.

Both Tinted Dreams (1976) and I Love, You Love (1980) by Dusan Hanak concern unrequited love stories. Jakob and Jolanka of Tinted Dreams are incompatible -- he is an extremely popular postman, she a gypsy. Their only escape is through fantasy for in reality neither Jolanka's kinsmen nor Jakob's family would approve of their love. The countryside, inhabited by stock characters, provides a suitably quaint atmosphere for this romantic tale.

I Love, You Love revolves around the travails of Pista, worker at the railway station post office, and his abortive attempts at romantic encounters. The reason his amorous adventures never come to fruition is largely because he is plump, short and poor. With his friend Vinco, he regularly drinks himself into oblivion. Pista loves Viera, who loves and is betrayed by Vinco. But for Viera, Pista is just a drunken looser who leads Vinco astray.

When Vinco collapses in a stupor, after leaving the gas stove on, it is Pista who rescues the now pregnant Viera, while Vinco dies in the accident. But Viera, obsessed with Vinco's memory, once more rejects her suitor. Pista fluctuates between giving up his drunkenness to become a father to Viera's child and embracing his old way of life. Again the rustic environment accentuates the emotional experiences of the characters in a film that, inexplicably, was banned for eight years.

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