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The Shop on Main Street

One wonders what the Oscar ceremony of 2050 is going to be like. Will Quentin Tarantino finally receive his Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award? Will Richard Gere accept the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award without sending happy thought-waves to China? Well, one thing is certain. If the whole history of the Oscars holds true, then the Best Foreign Film of that year will be about the suffering of some people in some time and some place. It will be a gentle tale of one man's (person's?) struggle against the oppressive force of a gross political movement, with bejeweled portraits of quirky, but lovable, yet doomed people. The story will end in a blend of despair and redemption. Of course, though The Shop on Main Street follows the prototypical Oscar template, it is not about Jews or about World War II. Being a Czechoslovakian film 1965, it is really about oppressive Soviet communism, disguised, or put at safe distance, in a story about the good war against the fascists. It tells the story of a peasant named Tono Brtko (Josef Kroner) assigned to be the "Aryan controller" of an endearing, hunched old widow's (Idá Kaminská) simple button shop. That this craven man, with his awful wife and Nazi brother-in-law, is unable to save her leads to his own self-destruction. Eastern European cinema was very fond of hopeless narratives in the mid-'60s — nevertheless, The Shop on Main Street, directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, fulfilled its destiny and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film at the 1965 ceremony (it was up against Kwaidan and Marriage Italian Style). At this late date, it proves to be a fine if predictable film, but also somewhat downbeat — a work that flatters the assumptions of people looking for mainstream, middlebrow films about Big Issues. The filmmakers no doubt meant well enough, but for these reasons it's also the kind of obvious movie that Leonard Maltin will inevitably assign four stars, and which effortlessly garners Oscars, but which dissatisfies viewers hungry for a vigorous style, dynamic acting, and an unpredictable story. Criterion's DVD offers a clean full-frame transfer of the black-and-white film. It isn't derived from the best source print in the world, but it's passable. The box says it's a new digital transfer with newly translated subtitles, and a serviceable Dolby Digital track (mono) is on board. Supplements consist of the American theatrical trailer and a six-page insert containing, among other things, a brief newspaper article by Kadár published at the time. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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