WHEN THE CAT COMES (Vojtěch Jasný, 1963)

“Once upon a time, it should have happened.”

An anti-Nazi resistance fighter and disillusioned Communist, Vojtěch Jasný was, according to Milos Forman, the spiritual father of the Czech New Wave; indeed, his Až přijde kocour is a harbinger of that movement, one of whose greatest works is Jasný’s Všichni dobří rodáci (1968). Až přijde kocour—in English called The Cassandra Cat or When the Cat Comes—is a dazzlingly brilliant comical fantasy about Mokol, a cat in a traveling circus, who sees the true nature of townsfolk whenever his miniature sunglasses are removed from his cat-eyes. The film, written by Jasný, Jiří Brdečka and Jan Werich, took the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.
     Cinematographed by Jaroslav Kučera in gorgeous color, the film allows us to see what dear, cool Mokol sees: for instance, the unfaithful appear yellow; those in love, red. Inserted closeups of Mokol’s seeing-all eyes are sober, daunting and funny.
     The brave narrative, slippery to evade totalitarian reprisals, finds the visit of the circus reflecting an account of his own past by Oliva, one of the townsfolk and the film’s narrator; the same actor plays this character and the circus magician/master of ceremonies. A tremendous passage is the circus performance against a black backdrop, where, Hamlet-like, strands of what appears on stage reflects the lives of audience members, thereby invading their privacy. Espying and eavesdropping are activities shown throughout the film.
     The central conflict is between two men at the elementary school: Robert, a third-grade teacher attempting to inspire his pupils’ imagination and creativity; his superior, the authoritarian school director, who sharpshoots a stork down from the sky and, an amateur taxidermist, prepares and mounts the carcass for his trophy case: a reflection of his education philosophy. This soulless man now hopes to bag Mokol! The children, though, intervene; the orderly advancing crowd that they become offers hope for the future.
     Hilarious, the film is also poignant—politically and romantically. Few essential films are as delightfully entertaining as this one is.

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