Director Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains took home the Foreign Film Academy Award in 1966, and two years later he followed it with Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer), a lightly comic tale based on the novel by Vladislav Vančura, a classic in Czech literature. Rozmarné léto won the Crystal Globe at the 1968 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, and was set to compete at Cannes before that year’s festival was cancelled.
Swift, funny, and very Czech, Rozmarné léto is a delightful diversion that never wears out its welcome, thanks in part to a short (74 minute) running time.
It’s a whimsical little tale set in a small Czech village, centered in and around a swimming hole operated by Antonín Dura (Rudolf Hrušínský) and his wife Katerina (Míla Myslíková). Joining Antonín for swimming, fishing, eating, and spirited debates are the local reverend Roch (František Řehák) and major Hugo (Vlastimil Brodský).
The summer is uninspiring: overcast skies, low temperatures, frequent rainstorms. But a diversion rides into town with the arrival of magician-acrobat Arnoštek (played by director Menzel) and (especially) his lovely little assistant Anna (Jana Preissová). During the course of the film, Antonín, Roch, and Hugo each attempt to bed the willing Anna, with disappointing results.
Not much occurs during the course of the film. The focus here isn’t on story or even character, but on isolated culture and apathetic attitudes: the nonchalant, easygoing nature of the film is almost ironically prescient given the events of late 1968.
Key scene: a villager scolds the tightrope-walking Arnoštek, warning him that he might fall off, and then shakes the apparatus until he does. “What did I tell you?” he remarks as he casually walks away.
The acting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Hrušínský, whose work spanned seven decades, was one of the most popular Czech actors of all time, and Brodský wasn’t far behind him; it’s a pleasure seeing them working together here, along with Řehák, who scored his first big role in the film.
As the acrobatic magician, Menzel is also a lot of fun (with some impressive tightrope walking!), a perfect foil to the small-town villagers.
Soundtrack by Jiří Šust (he also did the music for Chytilová’s Daisies) is a perfect match for the tone of the film, with a nice little carnival beat to go with Arnoštek’s performances.
In the course of his career, Menzel directed two films based on novels by Vančura: Rozmarné léto, which was released in 1968 a few months before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the absurdist comedy (and one of my favorite Czech films) Konec starých časů (The End of the Good Old Times), which premiered at the 1989 Toronto Film Festival months before the Velvet Revolution.
These two films serve as perfect bookends for the Soviet occupation, celebrating communist ideals in their treatment of the church and the upper class, while remaining in spiritual opposition to a forceful takeover.
Skřivánci na niti (Larks on a String), Menzel’s next film after Rozmarné léto, was banned for twenty years by Soviet censors.
Vančura, himself a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, never lived to see the Communist takeover: he was among the 2000 Czech citizens executed by the Nazi SS in 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.