Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

An episodic life
By Mohamed El-Assyouti

Michaela Pavlatova
The second episode of Praha Ocima
(Prague Stories) directed by Michaela Pavlatova

 
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Splicing three or four short episodes by different directors into a single, feature-length portmanteau film is a practice with distinguished precedents, including Boccaccio '70 (1961), in which Federico Fellini, Mario Monicelli, Vittorio de Sica, and Luchino Visconti all filmed an episode inspired by Boccaccio; Histoires Extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead/Tales of Mystery 1967) in which Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini each contributed a cinematic version of an Edgar Allan Poe tale, and New York Stories (1989), comprising contributions by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. In the 1960s and 70s a few Egyptian portmanteau films were produced, including the 1960 collaboration between Ezzeddin Zulfuqar, Salah Abu Seif and Fattin Abdel-Wahab, Al-Banat Wal-Saif (Girls and Summer).

The first episode of Prague Stories, directed and co-written by Vladimir Michalek, depicts a day in the life of a journalist. Together with his colleagues he escapes the daily grind of the office by engaging in lunch-time bouts of drink, drugs, dancing and sex. At night he sleeps in his suit, ready in the morning to begin another day, following the same route to work, going through the same motions, at the same time.

The monotony is undercut by quick-fire editing, which dramatises the rapid pace of life, a headlong rush in which no one seems to stop and question or object to the underlying boredom. The loud sound track, rapid rhythm and spontaneous camera movement and acting style efficiently communicate the speed of living in a metropolitan city.

In contrast, the occasional voice-over narration on an otherwise silent sound track, slow tempo cutting, the recurrent close-up framing and the sombre night atmosphere renders the second episode more introspective and contemplative. Co-written and directed by Michaela Pavlatova, it focuses on a moment in the life of two disappointed lovers, each of whom has just terminated a relationship. On their first encounter they instantly realise that they have much in common, which may lead to another relationship. The expression of the central question -- 'is life possible without love?' -- treated in thousands of hours of film, has a strikingly eloquent and effective quality in this remarkable 10-minute episode.

The third episode, co-written and directed by Martin Sulik -- and for which he was awarded the best director prize at the Cairo International Film Festival -- shows the 'cultural' shock experienced by a Slovakian music teacher who has come to visit her daughter in Prague. The daughter's involvement with a married man, whose alcoholic wife has orchestrated their affair for her own convenience, and an outing to a nudist beach, are particularly shocking to the mother. Though less technically ambitious than the earlier episode, the pervasive humour of the scene provided a necessary comic relief and earned the appreciation of the jury at this year's festival, which is, after all, dedicated to the art of comedy, though Otto Alexander Jahrreiss's film All About Bob (Germany 1998) -- screened outside the competition in the Festival of Festivals section -- showed that comedy is not necessarily synonymous with stylistic banality.

The last episode of the film provides a fleeting account of a young woman whose dissatisfaction leads to a dolce vita existence. Her life is an extended party and in a single night she meets a new lover, abandons another, treating them both with the same indifferent detachment. Co-written and directed by Artemio Benki, the youngest of the four filmmakers, this episode, though moderately executed and acted, strikes a more contemporary and urgent note, and aptly ends the film.

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