The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Written by himself and then-wife Ester Krumbachová, the latter of whom originated the story idea, Jan Němec’s O slavnosti a hostech—literally, The Festivities and the Guests—is a cunning, quirkily funny, cumulatively chilling satire showing the atmosphere of persecution with which citizens who live in a totalitarian state must contend. It joins sharply observant behavioral comedy to darker currents. Czech authorities banned the film “forever.”
The plot revolves around the classical motif of the failed feast. A casual, carefree picnic is interrupted by a cruel, sadistic, charismatic stranger and his impressed followers. The picnickers are invited to a more formal event, an outdoor banquet. Their various rationalizations, delusions, ambitions facilitate both their passage from one “feast” to the next and their adjustment. There, they evidence the conformism that the original followers demonstrated; when one of the guests takes off on his own, they, the remaining guests, disrupt the second “feast” to hunt him down. At the end, the screen goes black, accompanied by the sounds of vicious dogs. While this finish predicts the price that individualism costs in the kind of society that is being depicted, it is also a summary metaphor for what the entire film has shown: the devolution of humanity into a regimented mob that keeps itself from being tagged as the prey by doing the state’s bidding. What Czech audiences cannot see at the conclusion becomes a kind of dark mirror in which they were invited to confront the nothing that they were under communist rule and to hear what constant fear could make them become. One failed feast leading to another, the narrative progression encompasses a bankruptcy of hope and of people pulling together toward positive social developments.
The U.S. title yields an apt, ascerbic pun.
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