"The Joke" (1968) and "Valerie and Her Week of Wonders" (1970), which screen today only at the Nuart, are a pair of Czech films by Jaromil Jires that are as obscure as they are astonishing. The second did play at the old Encore Theater in Hollywood in 1975, but "The Joke" has apparently never had a local run. Since it was based on a novel by Milan Kundera and adapted by him (and Jires) for the screen, we surely must owe its belated release to the current, highly publicized film of Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
Neither that film nor "Valerie," or any of the well-known films of the short-lived Czech New Wave of the '60s, prepares us for the impact of "The Joke." It's a work of devilishly deceptive simplicity. Ludvik (Josef Somr), a dark, compact man of perhaps 40, is being interviewed by a vivacious TV reporter (Jana Ditetova) when he realizes that she is married to an old enemy--and that he could easily seduce her as a way of revenge. Ludvik is flooded by painful memories that take us back to the feverish Stalinist Era of the late '40s and early '50s. In a letter to his college girlfriend he had remarked facetiously that "optimism is the opium of mankind . . . healthy spirits stink of stupidity." The girl had no qualms about turning him in for such treacherous thinking, saying, "The party has no secrets." As a result, he not only was expelled from the Communist Party and from his university but also sentenced to six years at hard labor.
In this bleak yet sometimes darkly humorous film, Jires and Kundera aren't merely condemning the extreme repression of the Stalinist Era and warning us of the futility of revenge. They are also suggesting that we all share a responsibility for the times in which we live--an implicit criticism of any form of government that brutalizes its citizens. As a fellow convict says, "Instead of reforming me, they've made me hate everything." Perhaps the greatest irony of "The Joke" is that it was completed just after the Soviet invasion.
"Valerie and Her Week of Wonders" is a dazzlingly surreal film in which the advent of menstruation plunges a beautiful 13-year-old (talented Jaroslava Schallerova) into a world of alternately dreamy and nightmarish fantasy. This exquisite film is set in a picturesque small town sometime in the 19th Century.
Valerie's fantasies unfold as a parable of innocence and evil, a vivid portrayal of the eternal struggle between the dictates of nature and the doctrines of religion. Unleashing a flood of Freudianisms, capped by a rash of vampirism, Jires succeeds triumphantly in envisioning the psychological impact of sexuality, both on young people and those around them. It's a tribute to Jires' skill that both of his films are remarkably swift and brief.