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Closely Watched Trains: The Criterion Collection

The Academy Awards have a track record for nominating foreign films that sponsor the kind of lazy Miramax/Merchant-Ivory blue-haired stuffiness that most imported art films have come to embody, the dull "awakening of sexual experience" films that somehow drain the subject of anything sexy, or the politically stirring but mostly tedious war films that tell you that a lot of people died needlessly. Closely Watched Trains, the Czechoslovakian Best Foreign Film winner from 1967, is thankfully none of these things — in fact, the main focus of the film is getting laid. Milos (Vaclav Neckar) comes from a family of lazy men, so he gets a job working at a train station, knowing it won't involve much labor. Furthermore, in the middle of World War II it's a safe job to have. But at the dispatch station there is little to do, and much of the time is spent standing around: His boss fawns over his birds, but fellow dispatcher Hubicka (Joseph Somr) likes birds of the female persuasion, seducing any woman within his reach and impressing Milos with his libidinous pursuits. Milos has a girlfriend, Masa (Jitka Bendova), but he is shy when it comes to anything sexual, and when he finally gets a weekend alone with her he's unable to perform and left ready to kill himself. Failing suicide, Milos becomes involved with Hubicka in a plan to sabotage the Czech government-supported Nazis. Though this may not sound like a comedy, Closely Watched Trains is filled with the droll, dry humor that seems inherently Czech — the jokes are delivered that zoned-out way that only Jim Jarmusch seems to still champion. The film is also surprisingly sexy — one woman is seduced by Hubicka by being rubber-stamped — but there is something strikingly erotic about this kind of '60s black-and-white photography. Perhaps because of the period it feels like the filmmakers are getting away with something naughty, but because of the political backbone of the story, it's more than just the Czech version of Porkys, as the piece understands the frustrations of living in an occupied territory while still being concerned with life's more pedestrian tasks. Directed and co-written by Jiri Menzel, a member of the Czech New Wave (a group that included such directors as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer), Trains feels liberated, drunk on the new freedoms of Czechoslovakia of the time, a freedom short lived; Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, sending many of Menzel's compatriots abroad, but not Menzel himself, who later denounced some of his earlier films. With Trains though, comes a taste of a movement in its prime, and a chance to see something that could have been as rewarding as any national cinematic movement in film history. Criterion's DVD comes in the original full-frame aspect ratio, with the Czech-language audio in DD 1.0 mono with optional English subtitles. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—DSH



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