Friday, 4 November 2016

The Fireman's Ball (1967)

Whatever your view of Miloš Forman's The Fireman's Ball - is it a gentle and very human comedic look at a small Czechoslovakian town and the overgrown schoolboys who make up the local fire brigade, or is it a deeply subversive and sly dig at the corrupt and inept Communist government of the country at that time? - it would be impossible to deny this is a very special film.

Unless of course you just happen to be in the Czech leadership of that era, or you are the film's backer, Carlo Ponti.

Famously, the Communist regime banned the movie 'permanently and forever' following the events of 1968's Prague Spring, concluding that the film unfairly poked fun at the ordinary working man - a ban that was not officially lifted until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Likewise, Carlo Ponti - who stumped up the finances for the production - was extremely dissatisfied with both what he felt was a snide depiction of the working class and at Forman turning in a film that was only 73 minutes long and not the 75 minutes he had stipulated. Who'd have thought that both an Italian millionaire and the Communist party would have been in accord about anything?

It's a nonsense of course to claim the film pokes fun or attempts to ridicule the working man (and woman), but it's the same criticism levelled at the work of Mike Leigh by, frankly, idiots. Indeed, there's a good comparison to be made here from Forman's characters and those Leigh would come to create in the subsequent decade and beyond. These are very genuine human beings who are gently stylised to depict the flaws of self-service, ego and incompetence inherent in our make-up. But just like Leigh, Forman's work doesn't condemn or castigate, and The Fireman's Ball remains a sweet, good-natured social comedy. Indeed, to draw another parallel with British work, I felt that The Fireman's Ball was somewhat akin to the scripts of Jack Rosenthal - the whole affair could easily have been an episode from the 1974-'75 series Village Hall - it's only Forman's touch of whimsy in some instances (the closing moments and a key scene of sheer pandemonium during the ball) that takes this away from the more socially real aspects of Rosenthal and Leigh.

The story is a simple one, the fire department of a small Czechoslovakian town are staging the eponymous ball to honour their former chief on his 86th birthday.  Their plans are big; a dinner and dance with drinks and a buffet, a beauty contest featuring the town's most beautiful young women and a raffle featuring delicacies, wine, toys and cosmetics.

But their plans seem doomed from the start; the girls don't really want to take part in the contest and items begin to get pinched from the raffle table, it isn't long before the blustering, bumbling men of the fireman's entertainment committee are given an almighty headache by these turn of events, and that's before  the fire alarm goes off and they are called out to a nearby farmhouse which is ablaze.

There are so many beautifully wry and hilarious scenes in The Fireman's Ball; the procession of sullen, bemused girls forced to line up in the back office for the lascivious eyes of the committee, how one girl simply can't stop giggling, whilst another eager soul has rushed home to fetch her swimwear which she proceeds to strip down to. The elderly president whose honour the ball is staged for repeatedly attempting to make his way to the stage whenever the band strikes up (there's just something so naturally hilarious about both this poor timing and his walk itself that I just could not stop giggling) The committee's attempt to stop the thievery from the top table by turning out the lights to offer everyone the chance to return the goods, only for more items to be pilfered in that secretive moment. And then there's the wonderfully subversive analogy of the old farmer shivering in his pyjamas as he watches his home burn to the ground being brought closer to the flames to keep warm. 

If you haven't seen it, The Fireman's Ball is utterly recommended.

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