The debut feature of František Vláčil, The White Dove (Holubice) does well to prepare the viewer for a filmmaker whose subsequent pictures were adept at defying most any urge to be bundled under a single heading. Those familiar with Second Run's earlier releases of Vláčil's work - conveniently available in a single collection or individually - may have noticed how uniquely separate Marketa Lazarová, The Valley of the Bees and Adelheid are. With some consideration, they're identifiable as having been made by the same director but each is also stubbornly self-contained. It's clear, already with The White Dove, Vláčil was interested in exploring cinema through its purest attributes. Here he teamed with, among others, cinematographer Jan Čuřík to inject complexities into what might have been a simple, straightforward narrative that's actually anything but.
Essentially, what we're looking at is a story of a Czech boy in a wheelchair who shoots a dove that was, unbeknownst to him, intended for a teenage girl living on an island in the Baltic Sea. With the help of an artist, the boy somehow nurses the bird back to health. Yet while that could qualify as the basic plot of the film, those watching it are unlikely to register those events as in any way defining what they've seen. What instead might come to represent the experience is a sense of safe disorientation, where we're never too far from what's occurring as to warrant confusion but the lingering mood nonetheless defies any hope of comfort. There are times in The White Dove, particularly one scene during which the boy's shadow is seen through a window, when it feels downright eerie, almost like a horror film. The varied but brilliant score by Zdeněk Liška is clearly a factor. It moves seamlessly from cool, jazzy mood pieces to lightly upbeat strings to foreboding unease.
Dialogue is made more or less superfluous in Vláčil's film as words even appear onscreen at times to perhaps lessen the importance of the spoken word even further, making the whole thing function about as ably with or without paying attention to what's being said. The White Dove hits as a fiercely visual film. It takes two quite different settings and establishes separate yet complementary moods - both of which reveal ample damage. The girl appears almost in mourning, guarded by a black umbrella, as she misses her white dove. The boy, in flashback, is shown being teased by his peers. His affliction is also revealed to be not what it seems. Even the shooting of the dove, in that desire to injure another living thing, illustrates something ostensibly sad in the boy. It's possible that, in order to really delve into humanism, there must be some sadness on display. This isn't necessarily an overtly downbeat film but it's unafraid of redefining the concept of the happy ending. The mood emitted doesn't always match what's occurring on screen, and it really needn't either.
An additional treat found here alongside The White Dove is the 1963 short film "Josef Kilián" ("Postava k podpíráni"), credited to Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt. In it, a man is seen searching for the title character (whose name reminds us of a certain Kafka protagonist, beginning several potential comparisons to the Czech writer) with no luck at all. His journey quickly, for reasons not known, takes him to a shop specializing in the rental of cats. Yes, felines. He takes one home but cannot find the place to return his temporary pet the following day. Worried about a late fee, the man tries and tries to get some answers but soon finds himself mired in a deeply frustrating bureaucratic maze, all the while still looking for the mysterious Mr. Kilián, whom he needs to inform of someone's death. Just when he thinks he's made it to the end, surely to finally speak with Josef Kilián, the man is confronted with only a telephone in the floor of an empty room.
The allegorical nightmare of bureaucracy is wickedly sharp yet veiled enough, according to Peter Hames' essay, to have escaped much attention upon its release. Even now, Second Run is proudly proclaiming this to be the first time the film has been released on DVD anywhere in the world. Make no mistake, though, "Josef Kilián" is a marvel of absurdity, reminiscent of Kafka certainly but also quickly bringing to mind Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Its detail and dry, straight-faced commitment are so on point as to make paranoia be something which can simultaneously terrify and warrant a hearty chuckle. All things considered, our unnamed protagonist handles the situation rather calmly. He pretty much just goes along for the ride, never entirely understanding why he wanted to rent a cat in the first place or for what reason the newspaper he picks up is in Arabic.
The co-director of the short, Pavel Juráček, deserves a quick mention for his integral role in Czech film. He'd only direct one other short and two features (including an adaptation of Gulliver's Travels called Case for a Rookie Hangman), but Juráček earned writing credits on major works like Daisies, Ikarie XB 1, and A Jester's Tale (which is forthcoming from Second Run). He'd then also spend time on the production teams of both Fruit of Paradise and Larks on a String. The included booklet details some of this fascinating figure's career, including a mention of how it was effectively ended by the Soviet invasion. At the very least, though, Juráček's remarkable, if brief, filmography has been richly mined by Second Run, which now has put out four of these pictures and has (at least) one more in the works.
This dual-layered disc is in the PAL format and region-free. Second Run has seemingly treated "Josef Kilián" as part of the package rather than a supplement and, as such, this review follows suit.
Both films are listed at the 1.33:1 aspect ratio but come in slightly narrower, as evidenced by the screen captures. The White Dove has been marred by poor quality releases, namely by Facets, and still doesn't look great here. There are visible halos, intense grain, and an overall analogue-looking image. It's entirely watchable without distraction as well as being consistent. Just don't expect pristine (which probably wouldn't be reasonable in this situation). "Josef Kilián" is easily better. Blacks are deeper, and detail registers nicely in comparison.
The Czech mono audio on The White Dove does have some hiss and crackle at times (though not uniformly throughout). It nonetheless ably reproduces the charismatic mix of music found in the film. A light, unobtrusive hiss can also be heard on the "Josef Kilián" track. Dialogue otherwise comes through cleanly. English language subtitles, white in color, are optional for both films.
No extras on the disc but a 24-page booklet accompanies the release. It contains essays by Peter Hames for the two films. Hames spends perhaps more time than necessary discussing František Vláčil's other movies but also adds pertinent information on both The White Dove and, in a separate piece, "Josef Kilián" and its creators.