In a week where we’ve already been saturated with (imo tedious and pointless) articles nit-picking the logical inconsistencies embedded within The Dark Knight Rises, and in which I heard Alfred Hitchcock’s voice inform me that “a critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow” (from a supplemental feature on the new Criterion reissue of The 39 Steps), I was more than astonished to read the following words:
Attention: The film you are about to see – in its plot, characters and setting – bears no resemblance to reality. It is only a play in which everything is distorted and exaggerated. Life isn’t like this.
The text comes from an intertitle at the beginning of Return of the Prodigal Son, part of Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave, that I’ve been working through in this column over the past few weeks. The idea expressed in that quote clearly applies a lot more strongly to the latest Christopher Nolan epic, any of Hitchcock’s mind-bending, coincidence-laden masterpieces, or just about any other film in the Czech New Wave Eclipse set, for that matter, than it does to the one that someone must have forced into the opening frames. How else to account for a film so naturalistic, down to earth and nuanced in comparison to most of what passes for popular entertainment, either back in 1967 when it was made, or nowadays, when the scale of artifice and illusion has grown immeasurably beyond what even the most adventurous directors could have imagined at that time? The essay included in the DVD case asserts that director Evald Schorm was, among his film-making peers, “dedicated to a more direct, realistic type of filmmaking than his friends.” And the subtle delivery he gives to this tale of a suicide survivor’s struggle with depression and the demands of readjusting to a life he fundamentally wants to reject only affirms that appraisal of his work. The potential to exploit the narrative and take it so much further out than Schorm did was there, and from the perspective of someone who’s worked for over 20 years in a mental health treatment setting, he shows admirable discipline in keeping his story well within the realm of… plausibility.
Schorm’s contribution to Pearls of the Deep, the omnibus collection of short films that serves as introduction to this set, was the color segment titled The House of Joy. It’s about as close to a documentary as one could get without being such, in that it just slightly fictionalizes the character of an actual painter whose eccentric self-taught methods transformed his house into a Bohemian folk-shrine, to the consternation of insurance salesmen utterly unprepared to respond to his artwork. With Return of the Prodigal Son, Schorm’s apparent risk was not so much that he took his story so far over the edge of believability that he needed to apologize in advance to his audience, but almost precisely the opposite. His trenchant portrayal of the numbing effect of life in contemporary Czechoslovakia, and his lead character’s indifference to the rewards of success that his society offered, was simply too devastatingly accurate, and potentially contagious, if its message were allowed to disseminate without some form of official reprimand hanging over it. Perhaps it was Schorm himself who provided the dismissive foreword, in order to get the censors to back off a bit, after he saw the fate of Daisies and A Report on the Party and Guests when they were both mothballed by government officials immediately upon completion.
Return of the Prodigal Son tells the story of Jan, an engineer who’s been married for a few years to his wife Jana. They have a young daughter, around toddler age. Attractive couple, adorable daughter, a good job – all the ingredients for a contented life, right? The film opens from the back of an ambulance, transporting its patient into a hospital entrance, and we quickly learn that Jan was the passenger, hauled in for psychiatric observation after he was discovered unconscious and slumped over his desk, the victim of self-inflicted poisoning. His suicide attempt sends his family and colleagues into shock, as Jan seemed to be on his way to better things, and there seems to be no particular lack or problem in his life that would provoke such a crisis.
Jan’s problems turn out to be of a more internal and existential origin than in any outward pressures weighing him down. His bright, analytic mind presents a challenge to the hospital’s lead clinician, who faces the daunting task of persuading someone who’s been staring deep into the abyss to turn his attention back toward the sun, as if the cold gaping void wasn’t right there nipping at his heels anyway. Far from the run of the mill schizophrenics or delusional paranoid patients that presumably make up the bulk of his hospital’s long-term population, Jan’s critique of the human condition is too incisive and rational for the doctor to blithely dismiss. And the masculine attraction he exudes, his willingness to question and potentially cross the boundaries that normally exist between staff and patients, also happens to stir the interest of Olga, the doctor’s lonely, pent-up wife.
Peering further into Jan’s disruptive bout of profound malaise, we see that all is not well in regards to his relationship with Jana. She’s neurotic, confused, promiscuous herself, though sincere in her desire to help her obviously hurting but obstinately hard-to-reach husband. But her efforts are too easily undone and distracted when she’s at home (where she lives with her parents and daughter) while her husband is locked away at the institution. Her friend Jiri (played by director Jiri Menzel) shows a bit too much eagerness to keep her company, which leads to all sorts of confusion and mixed messages that switch from on to off, stop to go, almost with minute by minute frequency.
Every so often, bursts of affectionate spontaneity erupt between Jan and Jana, demonstrating the genuine love and bond that they share – and yet, the connection remains fragile, derailed so quickly whenever either one of them slips through the mental and emotional cracks that ennui has eroded into their core personalities. In their search for assurance and stability, they put each other to the test, sometimes psychologically (what is a failed suicide attempt anyway, if not an exploration of a relationship’s most extreme limits?) and sometimes physically – trials that their hearts are willing to endure, until their minds rebel at the nature of the game that each inflicts upon the other.
As a fallback option, Jan and Jana arrange for some short release home visits, aimed at helping him re-acclimate to domestic life and its routines, including a return to living under the same roof as Jana’s cynical parents, who would just as soon be rid of this deadbeat bum of a son-in-law in exchange for the stable and uncomplicated Jiri, whose visits to Jana’s bedroom when Jan is away don’t give them any trouble whatsoever.
Jan’s attempts to get back into some semblance of the life he almost permanently left behind prove to be much more difficult than anyone might have imagined – especially as he finds himself increasingly absorbed and comfortable within the rigid confines of the psychiatric hospital. His relationships with roommate Zdenek, a dancer whose vision of cosmic blight is in close parallel to Jan’s own, and the escalating enmeshment with Olga add new layers of confusion to the mess he’s trying to make sense of. Further retreats into isolation don’t necessarily offer comfort, but the withdrawal does reduce much of the friction, a welcome relief in its own terms. It’s a detour, a reliable means to an ambiguous end, that I’m confident we’ve all resorted to at various points in our lives.
Much to Schorm’s credit, as both a humanist and as a filmmaker, he resists the temptation to amplify Jan’s turmoil or make him an object of either horror or pity. This is no Czech New Wave reimagination of Through a Glass Darkly – as brilliant as Bergman’s own take on a woman’s descent into schizophrenic madness remains to this day. But it could be seen as a precursor of sorts to fellow Czech director Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as they share common themes of “feigned”(?) madness and the crushing pressures of institutional control and cultural conformity seek to exert on misfits and dissenters to keep them in line. While Cuckoo’s Nest certainly goes down as the greater and more important film of the two, I give Return of the Prodigal Son extra points for delivering its message with less bombast and a courageous willingness to avoid Forman’s heavy-handed conclusion and sense of self-importance.
Movies dealing with themes of depression and that overwhelming sense of hollowness that sometimes engulfs even the most resilient of us are so easily thrown off-balance and often devolve into near-parody, at least as seen by those who’ve found a way out of such existential dead-ends. As with the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, this film’s portrayal of his return acknowledges the relief and happiness that we experience when the shackles of disgrace and alienation are lifted. But it also reminds us that even after the family is restored, the story isn’t over at all… a new one is just beginning.