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Timeless universes
Pavel Jurácek at the MFA
"Pavel Jurácek: Czech New Wave Master Rediscovered"
At the Museum of Fine Arts May 8 through 23.

When the Czechoslovak writer and director Pavel Jurácek died, in 1989, he was 53 years old and hadnít made a film in 20 years. The film industry is tough on its unique talents, and when a filmmaker labors under the restrictions of a repressive state, itís even tougher. Czechoslovak Communism fell the year of Jurácekís death. The playwright Václav Havel (who acted in one of Jurácekís films) became his countryís first non-Communist president in 41 years, and Jurácekís 1969 masterpiece Case for a Rookie Hangman, which had been suppressed by the Communists the year it was made, could finally be shown. It was too late for Jurácek. Havel was elected in December; Jurácek had died in August.

Case for a Rookie Hangman screens at the Museum of Fine Arts May 22 at 3 p.m., one of eight films in the MFA series "Pavel Jurácek: Czech New Wave Master Rediscovered." Seven of the films Jurácek wrote or directed; the eighth, The Key for Defining Dwarves (May 15, 2:15 p.m.), is a recent "pseudodocumentary" drawn from his voluminous journals. These are foreboding and funny surrealistic works whose allegorical timelessness transcends the oppression of time and place.

Jurácek struggled under the weight of Marxist ideas of history, but in Czechoslovakia, those ideas had plunged society into some no manís land buried beneath history and floating away from it too. Even by the standards of other Czech directors of the period, such as Vera Chytilová (Daisies), Jurácek is buoyant and crazy. At the same time his work is weighed down and heavy, blocky and dark in the style of Orson Wellesís version of The Trial.

The first in the series, the 1963 sci-fi movie Voyage to the End of the Universe (May 8 at 2 p.m.), is an excellent introduction to the Jurácek balancing act. Directed by Jindrich Polák from a Jurácek screenplay, Voyage is Eastern European science fiction of the type that, in the í60s, American International Pictures used to buy, dub into English, and show at drive-ins (which in fact it did with Voyage, whose Czech title is Ikarie XB 1). The film unfolds on a massive spaceship heading for Alpha Centauri, but this Voyage is poised not just between Earth and other planets but between history and an endless expanse of nothingness. Shot in shimmering black-and-white, itís science fiction that competes with art films of its day, with Antonioni, Buñuel, and Losey. A dance-party scene in a shipboard lounge outclasses William ShatnerĖera Star Trek and mixes it with the incipient Fellini-ism that would overtake Jurácekís work as the í60s progressed. Voyage points the way to three films that stand in obvious debt: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovskyís Solaris, and Alien. That the spacemenís track-suit uniforms make them look like Russians whoíve retired to a beach community on the outskirts of Cape Canaveral only adds to the poignancy of the film, in which all systems are winding down.

The Jesterís Tale (1964; May 8 at 3:45 p.m.), directed by Karel Zeman from Jurácekís script, will please fans of Terry GilliamĖstyle animation. Itís an anti-war comedy in which a peasant, a mercenary, and a comely lass disguised as a jester try to escape from a partly animated Thirty Yearsí War. Jan Schmidtís 1966 End of August at the Hotel Ozone (May 13 at 6 p.m.), also from a Jurácek script, is a post-apocalyptic tale with a contemporary look. Eight young women guided by an older one sift the ruins of a black-and-white world. Armed with rifles and on horseback, they look at times like two all-girl indie-rock bands and their college poetry teacher lost in the woods. But thereís little dialogue in End of August, and only one song, which intrudes from a long-gone culture. Naming the song would spoil the film.

Jurácek is at his most haunting in a 38-minute short he wrote and directed in 1963 called "Josef Kilián" (May 15 at 2:15 p.m.); itís a necessary prelude to Case for a Rookie Hangman. A man searches in vain for a bureaucrat. Heís saddled with a cat heís rented from a cat-rental store and canít return because the store has disappeared. "Kilián" plunges you into an allegorical, satirical atmosphere of ominous pointlessness equaled only in Jurácekís work by the excessive Hangman. That film, Jurácekís testament, uses incidents from Jonathan Swiftís Gulliverís Travels to create a totalitarian shadow world apart from and floating over ours. Itís all too easy to see why the film was banned. Its protagonist becomes a man condemned not to die but to shuttle uncomfortably between two absurd societies, one bleak and nonsensical, the other desiccated and forlorn. At times, Jurácekís films seem like parodies of Ingmar Bergman at his most nightmarish. Unlike Bergman, however, Jurácek maintains a black, wicked sense of humor that saves his characters from mopiness. In the end, his films are comedies, not tragedies. The tragedy is that Jurácek couldnít save himself.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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