DVD/Blu Ray

The Cassandra Cat (PG) |Home Ents Review

Dir. Vojtech Jasny, Czechoslovakia, 1963, 105 mins, subtitles

Cast: Jan Werich, Vlastimil Brodsky, Emilia Vasaryova, Jiri Sovak, Vladimir Mensik

Review by Colin Dibben

Small-town antagonisms between adults, and tensions between grown-ups and children, never looked as appealing as in this sunlit, surreal, gentle satire that ushered in the Czech New Wave.

Big-hearted storyteller Oliva (Werich) watches the people of a beautiful Czech town (the film makes great use of the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of Telc) from the clocktower. He shows us the idiosyncratic behaviours of the townsfolk below, slowly focusing on Robert (Brodsky).

Robert is a liberal minded school teacher. When he’s not teaching the ruddy-cheeked, tousle-haired moppets, he spends his time foiling the machinations of the busybody headmaster, Karel (Sovak) and his rubbery-faced lackey Skolnik (Czech New Wave fave Mensik).

A small travelling circus arrives. The circus mascot is a tabby cat, Mourek, who wears sunglasses, because his gaze paints people different colours, depending on their true nature: liars turn violet, thieves are grey, unfaithful people are yellow and those in love become red.

During a packed performance in the town square, Diana, the trapeze artist (Vasaryova), takes Mourek’s sunnies off and the townsfolk are revealed in their true colours, literally.

A stampede ensues and Karel plots to catch and destroy the cat to reassert his authority. Robert, Diana and the schoolkids team up to save Mourek and stick their collective tongue out at the pompous bureaucrat Karel.

Part fairy tale, part social allegory, The Cassandra Cat turned into a trenchant political critique when it was banned after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Mourek, despite his non-human nature, is almost a classic antagonist. He isn’t actually on screen that much. The main story involves Oliva (and his double, the circus master), their interactions with Robert and their collective battle against Karel and his lackeys. The framing narrative’s deployment of Oliva gives his perspective moral authority, which makes the film feel slightly less anti-authoritarian than the plot summary suggests. The love story between Robert and Diana comes across as very dreamlike, fairy tale, non-physical.

The Cassandra Cat is great fun, and slightly disturbing too. The protracted stampede/ dance sequence is pretty trippy and reminded me of the dance sequence in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It’s not just the grey and violet, but also that sense of a dark, manic energy. There is something almost sepia about the matt flesh tones that this 4K restoration by those heroes at Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna reveals.

The city of Telc and the surrounding countryside are characters in their own right too and look utterly beguiling in the sunlight.

Director Vojtech Jasny went on to make the excellent All My Countrymen just before the 1968 catastrophe. That film is also released on Second Run and well worth checking out.

The Cassandra Cat is out on Blu-ray from 20 February 2023.