Despite being relatively light on political content, Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting – re-released on DVD and Blu-ray this week – was banned for twenty years under Soviet rule but has since become an enduring favourite of the Czech New Wave.
One of the few directors of the Czech New Wave not to come out of the famed Prague film school, FAMU, Ivan Passer was part of what Peter Hames calls ‘The Forman School’ – consisting of Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek and Miloš Forman himself. They worked on films together and developed a familiar shared style that opted for understated expression of the everyday rather than the more formally self-conscious work of many contemporaries. This could hardly be more apparent than in Passer’s subtle, casual, and comical weekend break, Intimate Lightning.
More of a situation than a narrative, the focus of the film is a reunion between old friends, Petr (Zdenek Bezusek) and Bambas (Karel Blazek). The former is a town mouse and concert musician with a beautiful young girlfriend, Stepa (Vera Kresadlova), on his arm; the latter is the head of a provincial music school, living with his wife, Marie (Jaroslava Stedra), their two children and his in-laws. The potential is rife for about the clash between the urbane and the parochial – and a similar set-up was used by Krzysztof Zanussi in his debut feature The Structure of Crystals – but Passer largely avoids the conventional conflict. There are a couple of instances that suggest social collision – in which Petr tries to tempt Bambas back to the city, or Stepa has a strangely disquieting encounter with a group of local women – but they’re peripheral and more of a background than a subject matter.
Instead, Intimate Lighting is far more concerned with patiently observing its players in mildly humorous situations and via the flicker of an eye, or a languid gesture, getting to the truth of their characters. For all of the space between Stepa and Marie’s mother (Vlastimila Vlková), they share a tender moment in which their marginality in their men’s affections becomes poignantly apparent and a point of union. Elsewhere, much has been written about the homoerotic undertones of Petr and Bambas’ relationship and their inability to physically communicate until they are soused in the evening. In a reversal of traditional native structure, Passer doesn’t take disrupt the status quo with challenges, but moments of reprieve and alliance. Or in the grandfather’s (Jan Vostrcil) case, the spring he discovers in his step with a sexy young woman around the house.
One of the extras on the new Second Run Blu-ray release of the film is Passer’s 1964 short, A Boring Afternoon, his only other film made in the Czech Republic before defecting to the US in 1968. A film more overtly concerned with a culture clash – this time generational – it’s a fascinating little slice of life set in a largely empty pub while its punters are at the football. It could quite easily be a scene from Intimate Lighting and comically plays with notions of ageing and nostalgia and their seemingly inextricable relationship with football fandom.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson