The Firemen's Ball (Milos Forman / Czechoslovakia, 1967):
(Horí, má Panenko)

The Party, the People, and the flames that won’t be extinguished. Milos Forman himself might be the deadpan artist dangling from the burning banner before the credits, this is his acrid farewell note to Czechoslovakia, the Soviet tanks would roll in one year later. The provincial city hall sets the stage for the all-pervasive farce, the annual ball thrown by the local committee of volunteer firefighters to raffle off prizes, choose the beauty queen, and honor the retirement of the ancient chief. The subversive spectacle rests on the myriad of ways the thing goes wrong, exposing the gawky crowd poised for chaos, the cadre of confused, sagging leaders, and the roiling sea of stupidity, corruption and clumsiness on which everybody floats, hoping for the best. The main table loaded with lottery goodies is gradually emptied by pilfering guests (the "honest idiot" who tries to return a stolen head of cheese is the only one who gets caught), under it teenagers enjoy an awkward tryst. The flimsily manufactured pomp of the beauty contest -- slouching girls are snatched from the dancing floor, leered at by the officials, and dragged screaming onstage to be crowned -- is but one of the many travesties of ritual and celebration, a comic bedrock for Altman, Ritchie, Mike Leigh. "Solidarity" is the word nobody can remember, the drunken cry of revolt is briefly heard ("Shit on the brigade!"), the stalled fire engine leaves an elderly man bereft in the snow outside, just a bed next to the ashes where his house was. Witnessing it all is the sideways-glancing camera, and the wizened, cancerous beneficiary, forgotten on the sidelines like De Sica’s Umberto D. "Gentlemen, don’t underestimate the people." In a preface demanded by the furious government, Forman is made to assure viewers that this is about firemen and firemen only, and, taking a cue from the film’s other bumbling figureheads, does an appropriately inept job. With Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebánek, Josef Valnoha, Frantisek Debelka, Josef Kolb, Jan Stöckl, Milada Jezková, and Frantisek Svet.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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