English Title: The Ear
Original Title: Ucho
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Karel Kachyna
Music: Svatopluk Havelka
Cinematography: Josef Illík
This Czechoslovakian psychodrama was made in 1970, but had been notoriously mothballed for two decades by the nation’s ruling Communist party because of its deleterious portrayal of the party, only unveiled itself at Cannes’ main competition in 1990 after Czechoslovakia’s first democratic election in over 40 years.
Anna (Bohdalová) is in a foul mood after attending a political party dinner in the Prague castle with her husband Ludvik (Brzobohatý), a senior official in the regime, maybe because she has drunk too much, or the painful fact that today is their 10th marriage anniversary yet as usual he barely notices. Hardly has he stepped out of the taxi when she shoots barbs at him, it would be a long, sleepless night. After both fail to find the keys to their house, an unsettling trepidation seeps through the nocturnal ambience, there is a power cut in their abode (but not their neighbors), their phone doesn’t function, and the house seems to been broken into while some shady characters are still lurking in their garden, all presages that things simply don’t compute, that’s when paranoia begins to loom large. Remembering the conversations from the party earlier, especially that his superior had been cooped up with several other fellow officials for an unspecified inspection, Ludvik treads that something bad is in the offing, and his immediate action is to destroy all the paperwork which can implicate him with the said superior, who also happens to be their son’s godfather, a needling Anna also partakes in the process, so is her incessant quibbling.
An ingeniously compelling interlude arrives when the electricity is back, their doorbell rings stridently, Ludvik is so sure that the visitors are going to take him away for investigation, only to realize it is his sozzled comrades who are returning the keys (which they claim to find in the party) and need another bout of booze in the witching hour. Anna is pissed off, but to Ludvik, it is such a soothing relief to efface the paranoia. After the departure those decadents, he even seeks carnal knowledge with Anna in their kitchen, yet the latter is a killjoy for such levity, their bickering extends, more self-revealing backstory surfaces, their marriage is an utilitarian union of a loose woman and a political climber who chiefly lusts after her respectable fortune, in the heat of the moment, a livid Ludvik almost turns to physical violence. When anger abates, an unintentional discovery will lead both to the spiral of disillusion and despair, the “ears” are real, they are under surveillance, everything they have said that night has been recorded by the government, no exit strategy can save them at this point, or will it be? Next morning, an early call will put their apprehension into rest, but forever suspicious thereafter, an ironically vitriolic coda confected from director Karel Kachyna, a prolific and prominent figure in Czech cinema.
In retrospective, the film’s political slant aiming at the hierarchy’s privacy-deprived, sanity-eroding measures can be safely taken out of its own contextual agenda, and still be valuable as a cri-de-coeur for wholesome freedom and a pièce-de-résistance of top-shelf theatrics, both Bohdalová and Brzobohatý (real couple at then) are extraordinary in this emotive two-hander, an evident character-exposé hits on the right note. Along with the film’s sombre cinematography and close-range observation, another distinguished novelty is the film’s striking use of the camera’s subjective angle from Ludvik in the scenes of the party, wobbly, over-exposed, successfully transmits a surreal tinge of uncertainty, distrust and eeriness, that is the gist of a classic Czechoslovakian wonder.