Fimfárum Jana Wericha (2002)
Directed by Aurel Klimt and Vlasta Pospísilová

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Fimfárum Jana Wericha is divided into five independent stories, each of which is derived from a Czech folktale. The first of these, "When Leaves Fall from the Oak," tells of how a drunken peasant makes a deal with the devil, whom that man subsequently outwits. The second, "Fearless Frankie," relates how the father of a young man who is afraid of nothing arranges for his son to spend a night in a tavern where the spirits of the dead gather to gamble and cavort. The third, "Mean Barbara," revolves around the efforts of various persons to dispose of the body of a miserly old woman. The fourth, "A Dream Fulfilled," is about an elderly farmer who squanders his money playing the lottery, and the last tale, "Fimfárum," centers on a blacksmith with a scheming, unfaithful wife who is forced to perform a variety of impossible tasks.

Aurel Klimt and Vlasta Pospísilová's Fimfárum Jana Wericha is a visually stunning, narratively captivating delight. It may not quite be a masterpiece, but it comes very close.

All of the film's five stories are performed exclusively by puppets moved by means of stop motion animation, and all are set in often peculiar and always lovingly crafted sets. The puppets the directors have employed are, without exception, absolutely captivating to watch and lend the movie a potent magical quality. Some convey a sense of gentle beauty or of homely goodness. Others are weirdly misshapen, and still others are gruesomely hideous. As diverse as they are, however, all are mesmerizing. The lands they inhabit are, moreover, nearly as entrancing as they are. Most of the film's places, which include quaint country houses, haunted woodlands, and hellish torture chambers, have been created using unique and charming sculptures. The viewer is, consequently, transported from the world of his ordinary experience to a fantastic land that exists only in the movie, which he is allowed to inhabit throughout its duration.

What is more, each of the tales told is, in itself, so fascinating that, even without the movie's visual appeal, it would still be able to enthrall the viewer. Pospísilová's "When Leaves Fall from the Oak," for instance, is filled with such mischievous and inventive fun it is a consistent joy. The moviegoer is sure to be thrilled by the protagonist's shameless cleverness, the director's quirky depictions of a tavern in hell, and by her presentations of the demons' hilarious efforts to cure the hero of his addiction to rum.

"Fearless Frankie," with its card playing cadavers and countless macabre touches is just as delightful, both visually and narratively, as is the first story, and "Mean Barbara," while not as beautiful to look at as are either of the previous tales, is filled with such a deliciously black humor that it is sure to beguile the viewer throughout its duration.

The fourth story, sadly, is not as well realized as are the others. The narrative itself, with its ever hopeful but very foolish protagonist, is fun, but the devices used to bring it to life are occasionally unsuccessful. The director of this tale has, for example, depicted Prague, which the hero visits in the hope of finding a treasure there, not with the quirky sculptures used in all the other segments, but with cut outs of photographs. Even those of the city's inhabitants who do not take part in the story's actions are merely such cut outs and do not fit in well with the puppets which are used to portray the protagonists.

Thankfully, after having allowed the viewer's interest to waver slightly with "A Dream Fulfilled," the directors are able to rekindle his fascination with the final tale of their movie, "Fimfárum." Not only is this concluding story wickedly clever, with its various impossible happenings, supernatural touches, and vicious machinations, but its characters are all engaging. The blacksmith's lecherous, conniving wife, the stupid, incontinent nobleman who owns the village where the story is set, and his cunning, cruel servant are all so vile that they are invariably fun to watch, as are the tale's absurdly inattentive hero, the frog-like river spirit who helps him and the misshapen devils with whom he strikes a bargain.

Each of these narratives is wonderfully spellbinding, and all, additionally, have a genuinely folkloric feel that gives them a vibrant immortality. The viewer is readily lifted out of his daily life and immersed in a timeless, otherworldly universe which he is able to experience with an affecting immediacy. What is more, this sense is made even more potent by the film's visual qualities. Instead of being tricked into thinking that he is looking though a window into some locality elsewhere in the world of men, the moviegoer is always reminded that he is enjoying a work of art so that nothing interferes with his involvement with that work.

I cannot begin to express how fun and bewitching Fimfárum Jana Wericha is. From its first moment until its last the movie is so brilliantly made that it is sure to captivate and delight the viewer.

Review by Keith Allen

Note: Fimfárum Jana Wericha is available on DVD at Bontonland.

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