Posts Tagged ‘film reviews’

The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

Milos Forman’s bizarre political comedy The Firemen’s Ball is as well-known for the controversy surrounding its release in 1967 as it is for its content. But the content shouldn’t be ignored—The Firemen’s Ball is a brilliant film, its understated comedy inherent in the events as a group of firemen throw a ball in their small town, where they plan to award their former chairman a ceremonial axe.

The Firemen’s Ball is about bureaucracy run amok, as the governing committee are unable to make such simple choices as what girls to put in a beauty contest or how to run a lottery without resorting to roundabout discussions and payola from concerned mothers, fathers, and boyfriends. As “the people” get drunker and rowdier, the committee breaks down—those tasked with guarding the lottery watch as more items disappear, while the discussions over who is to present what and when comes nearer to fisticuffs. The whole thing culminates in a ridiculous attempt at having a beauty contest in which all the contestants refuse to go onstage.

This is absurdism at its finest. The film is shot through with the darkest of Czech humor—everyone, from the committee to the people to the landscape itself is the butt of a joke, representative of petty rivalries, drunken idiocy, and smug leadership that cannot lead. Forman’s roaming camera captures faces young and old as they slowly devolve into drunkenness and competition, the disgust of young women for the group of old men trying to figure out how to judge their beauty, the palpable sense of the absurd. While the film never explicitly attacks the Communist party, it is self-evidently a condemnation of the bureaucracy, corruption, and squabbling within Czechoslovakia at the time.

The Firemen’s Ball plays like a documentary, with the camera catching the apparently unguarded moments of the crowd. Many of the actors are non-professional (most of the firemen are played by actual firemen from the town), and the humor of the film lies in even its extremity being believable—none of the slapstick elements are overplayed or come off as merely comic vignettes. As the ball breaks down into absurdity and chaos (including an actual fire), the underlying commentary lies in the ineptitude of the firemen to accomplish even the smallest tasks. The fact that it doesn’t purport to be a pure allegory (of Communism, of Czechoslovakia) means that the film extends itself to universality—it encompasses a petit bourgeois smugness and bureaucratic nonsense that would say as much about the United States or Soviet Russia as it does about Czechoslovakia.

After the release of The Firemen’s Ball, Forman left Czechoslovakia to discuss financing the film, and the Soviets invaded. The film was “banned forever,” Forman chose to remain outside the country, and The Firemen’s Ball was eventually nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a scant running time of barely more than an hour, it stands up as one of the finest, funniest political allegories ever filmed and a seminal event in the Czech New Wave.

The Firemen’s Ball is available to stream on FilmStruck.

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Elmer Gantry (1960)

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Big-tent evangelism is a very American form of religion, a combination of populist Christianity and salesmanship that could only exist in a sprawling country that relied on religious freedom as one of its founding tenets, right next door to aggressive individualism and free enterprise. Elmer Gantry, therefore, is a story that can only happen in American, with a hero as complex and morally ambiguous as the land itself.

Burt Lancaster is Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman, huckster, and former seminarian who hitches his wagon to Sister Sarah Falconer (Jean Simmons), the leader of a traveling revivalist church. I use the term church loosely, for Sister Sarah has no denominational affiliation to speak of: she’s selling her own brand of Christianity to the rural masses. Gantry proves to be a sort of godsend to Sister Sarah’s organization: he’s a rousing speaker, summoning visions of hellfire and damnation to ignite the congregation while Sister Sarah offers them peace and salvation. As their organization grows, Gantry and Sarah decide to push into the (bigger) city with their revivalist meeting, heading to Zenith, Winnemac (a fictional city and state that could be any large populated area across the Midwest), where Sister Sarah hopes to build a permanent tabernacle. Gantry runs afoul of his past, however, in the form of Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), Gantry’s former lover turned prostitute.

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Elmer Gantry could have played like a straight moral tale, with the shady salesman duping the small-town folks into buying his religious snake-oil until finally exposed by a more moral crusader (or, alternatively, by his nefarious past). But the film refuses to offer such an easy answer to the questions it poses. Gantry is a huckster, no doubt, yet he comes to believe or, at least, to understand the need for belief in those around him. Sister Sarah is no doe-eyed idealist dreaming of salvation; she’s a complex figure, with both a strong understanding of what it means to sell religion, and a true belief that she’s saving souls. Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a newspaperman and resident symbol of atheism and cynicism, is repelled by Gantry but respects his intellect all the same; nor is Lefferts’ disbelief any better or more realistic than the evangelical fervor of Gantry and Sarah – it’s just another side of the same coin. Even the wronged and cynical Lulu hides a complicated soul: rejected by her reverend father after she’s seduced by Gantry, she still loves the man who wronged her.

If this film could have had a better cast, I’d like to see it. Burt Lancaster is the center of this whirlwind: charming, cunning, half-sincere and half-joking, he charges into each scene with his head down and his teeth gleaming. A salesman for Jesus, he waves his Bible with all the conviction of a true believer, and talks town officials into allowing the revivalist meeting by appealing once to their avarice and twice to their faith. Yet Gantry isn’t insincere in his religion, or in his burgeoning love for Sister Sarah; he just bends the world to accommodate him, mostly unaware of those he walks over to get there, and never willfully harming anyone. He might seem almost Satanic at times, but we should not forget that Satan has always believed in God.

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Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah is in stark contrast to Lancaster’s bellowing Bible-thumper. Sarah is the other kind of true believer, a woman whose faith is so engrained in her identity that to think that God isn’t speaking to her would be to destroy her own soul. She recognizes Gantry as a charlatan, making use of his charlatanism to advance her ministry. When Gantry’s roving past is revealed, it’s Sister Sarah who suffers willingly, as she finally steps into the role of martyr. But again it would be a mistake to dismiss Sarah as someone searching for personal aggrandizement: this is a film about faith, and Sarah’s is as real and as palpable as Gantry’s.

Elmer Gantry‘s great strength is that it neither dismisses evangelism as cynical chicanery, nor does it embrace the Bible-thumpers as the true heralds of God. It’s not about the rightness or wrongness of religion or atheism, or about where religious truth actually lies. If anything, it’s about America: about the soul of a country and of a people, about searching for answers to questions that have none. Is Gantry a huckster or a preacher? Does Sister Sarah perform a miracle or is it just random coincidence? How far does faith go and can we justify the ways of God to Man?