Krzysztof Kieslowski placed it on his Top Ten list for a Sight & Sound magazine poll. Dave Kehr, formerly of The Chicago Reader, called it “one of the finest works of the short-lived Czech New Wave.” The New York Times noted that Intimate Lighting (1965) was one of those movies that “loses none of its charm, to age or to repeated viewing,” and countless other critics who have seen it have championed this small-scale but beautifully observed character study about the brief reunion of two musician friends and their realization of how their lives have substantially changed since their school days.
I’m also a huge fan of Intimate Lighting and first saw it when I worked as a non-theatrical movie distributor for Films Inc. It was one of the first films I had seen, along with Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (1967), from that brief Czech New Wave period between 1962 and 1971, and I was immediately hooked.
Yet Intimate Lighting, directed by Ivan Passer, is the sort of film that is best approached with no expectations or regard for all of the accolades it has received. Overpraise could easily blind you to the movie’s subtle charms and virtues. On the surface, the movie is virtually plotless, stringing together a collection of scenes surrounding the visit of Peter (Zdenek Bezusek), accompanied by his young girlfriend Stepa (Vera Kresadlová), to see his old friend and fellow musician Bambas (Karel Blazek). It’s not strictly a social visit – Peter has been invited to be the soloist at a concert being performed in Bambas’s village – but the two friends are looking forward to catching up and the movie details their reunion over the course of a weekend.
There are no big dramatic confrontations or shocking revelations or tragic denouements. Nor do Peter or Bambas emerge as uniquely talented underdogs whose musical genius is revealed to all in a formulaic, audience-pleasing finale. It’s not that kind of movie.
No, these are just ordinary, working class men with a side hobby and we never even see the final concert. Instead, Intimate Lighting is a deceptively low-key, non-judgment view of human nature full of sly wit and a touch of melancholy. Bubbling just beneath the surface conviviality and occasional social awkwardness between the two men is a sense of regret and abandoned dreams. Bambas, a local music teacher, is weighed down with responsibility – he has a wife and two children – and is still in the process of building his home, which he shares with his parents. Peter, on the other hand, may look footloose and fancy free in comparison but he too is at a crossroads in his life with his youth clearly behind him.
To give you some idea of the film’s simple but spontaneous narrative style (photographed by the great Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, is a scene where a group of musicians clad in mourning clothes play a funeral march on the way to a service. They pause at one point along the country road to take a rest and several of the men wander off to relieve themselves on the stucco wall of a farmer’s shed. The camera then pans across to a fellow musician who has spotted something in the field nearby and follows him as he wanders over to investigate. We see him approach what looks like two tombstones leaning against each other in the sun. As he draws closer, the tombstones collapse, revealing themselves as very white legs, and a large woman in a bathing suit rises up. Indignant that her sunbathing has been interrupted, she stomps off.
These subtle shifts in tone are always unpredictable but true to life and often express a distinctive Czech sense of humor, which is usually delivered with a quirky double twist. A perfect example of this occurs toward the end of Foreman’s The Fireman’s Ball when the firemen arrive too late from their ceremonial party to stop a raging fire from destroying an elderly man’s home. As the old man watches helplessly in the freezing winter weather, the firemen move him closer to his flaming house so he’ll be warm. Then, realizing the insensitivity of that gesture, turn his chair around so his back faces the burning wreckage.
For a movie in which nothing much really happens, Intimate Lighting is full of memorable moments – a family dinner scene in which a roasted chicken becomes a game of musical plates as the guests and hosts defer to each other over the best pieces, a flirtation scene between a mentally deficient villager and Stepa, who innocently teases him with an apple, and the scene when Peter and Bambas, drunk on homemade brandy, find musical inspiration in the sounds of the snoring women in their bedrooms.
The casting couldn’t be improved upon and Passer has achieved an effortless naturalism by using mostly non-professional actors. The only exceptions are Vera Kresadlova, who plays Stepa, and Vlastimila Vlkova and Jan Vostrcil as Bambas’s parents.
This was only Ms. Kresadlova’s third feature and the main reason she was cast was because her husband at the time, director Milos Foreman, begged Passer to give her the part. Passer, who had collaborated with Foreman on several screenplays such as Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball, finally agreed as a favor to him but it was a smart choice because Kresadlova’s Stepa is perfectly realized, a beguiling mixture of youthful immaturity and high spirits.
The scene where she continually distracts Peter and his fellow musicians from their practice session by holding up different barnyard kittens outside their window amusingly juxtaposes her fun-loving nature against the earnest intensity of the musicians who are unintentionally deconstructing a classical music selection.
The real scene-stealers are Vera Kresadlova, who proves to be an amazingly agile and athletic grandmother in the sequence where she demonstrates to Stepa her routine for keeping in shape, and Jan Vostrcil, the blowhard grandfather with a big breast fixation, who might be the movie’s most overtly comic creation. Whenever he’s on screen, he is usually touting his sexual prowess over the younger men, constantly boasting of former conquests with stories that begin with something like “Once I had a girl in a cornfield.”
Much more introspective and formal in his behavior is Karel Blazek as Bambas whose put-upon protagonist is the real heart and soul of Intimate Lighting. Through physical gestures, body posture and facial expressions, he tells us more about his character than any scripted dialogue could reveal. According to Passer, he discovered Blazek at a music school where he was an instructor.
When the director asked him to play Bambas, he refused as he had no interest in acting. He changed his mind after he read the script though because the character was so similar to himself. It’s a wonderful performance and takes on a much deeper resonance when you realize the actor was dying of leukemia at the time; he kept that information to himself and died only six weeks after the film was completed.
Intimate Lighting turned out to be Passer’s first and last feature film made in Czechoslovakia (he had previously directed a short, A Boring Afternoon, in 1964). The Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 brought an end to the Czech New Wave movement and Passer fled to the U.S. in 1969 with his compatriot Milos Forman to seek their fortunes in Hollywood. Foreman, of course, thrived and had a very successful career there but Passer’s career has suffered in comparison with most movie studios squandering his unique talents through either forced commercial compromises (Crime and Passion, 1974) or poorly managed promotional campaigns and distribution for films like Cutter’s Way (aka Cutter and Bone,1981).
The latter film is easily his best American feature and a highly overlooked contemporary noir with brilliant ensemble acting by Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn. But Intimate Lighting remains my favorite and when it was finally released in the U.S. in 1969, it won a special award from the National Society of Film Critics. In the Czech Republic, however, the movie was banned for more than 20 years. Not because it is politically controversial or critical of the government in any way. No, the real reason it was banned was because Intimate Lighting ignores any evidence of Communist bureaucracy or party officials in its world. They simply don’t exist and that was a worse crime apparently than a satire or a social critique of their regime.
One can only wonder what sort of films Passer might have made in the Czech Republic if the Soviet invasion had never occurred but that’s the sort of wistful regret that flows through the center of Intimate Lighting. I think film critic Pauline Kael summed up the movie’s special appeal best in her review: “The director, Ivan Passer, is witty in tiny, match-flare-size details; he shows us lives that have become a negotiation of small irritants. Day-to-day living in the town is like a prolonged silent-movie comedy. (How can a man’s drunken friend help him get through double doors after he’s got his head stuck?) The people are frustrated in petty ways and they’re so fidgety that it’s no wonder they make a botch of the music: everything in their lives is the opposite of the music they try to play. You find yourself doing small double-takes as you watch this movie. It builds to a freeze-frame closing gag that’s so funny and so completely dotty that you’re not likely to forget it.”
So how can you see Intimate Lighting? It was first released on DVD in 2006 by Second Run DVD, a UK based operation that offers several other key works of the Czech New Wave such as Jan Nemec’s A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966), Karel Kachyna’s The Ear (1970) and Milos Forman’s Audition (1963). But you need an all-region DVD player to view the Second Run release, which also includes an interview with Ivan Passer. As of 2018, Second Run released an all-region Blu-ray version of Intimate Lighting and it is a significant upgrade to the previous DVD version (which was quite nice). It also includes Passer’s short film, A Boring Afternoon, the previous mentioned Passer interview and a new essay on the film.
Other websites of interest: