Pictures of the Old World (Obrazy stareho sveta) Review

A remarkable portrait of well worn faces and bodies persisting beyond the margins of society, the 1972 film Pictures of the Old World (Obrazy starého sveta) nonetheless carries with it little sense of specific time or era. Its black and white photography furthers the timeless quality. The monochrome images would have felt just as isolating had they been captured forty years earlier or forty years after the film's completion. Fitting, too, that director Dušan Hanák had been inspired to make the film by a series of photographs from his fellow countryman Martin Martincek. These pictures play a significant role in the finished work, with the two art forms combining in a rare example of creative synthesis in which one expression is clearly elevated by another.

Pictures of the Old World has indeed been held in such high esteem as to be voted, in a 2000 critics poll, the greatest Slovak film ever. (Despite the Czech Republic and Slovakia having formally been a single nation until 1993, the two regions did have their own unique artistic cultures including film, evidenced by this work as well as a previous Second Run release of Slovak cinema, The Sun in a Net.) Hanák studied at FAMU and he had a background in making short films as well as an unreleased feature called 322. The relative experience and confidence in filmmaking shows significantly here, as does a creative hunger to express a point of view. The film is not so much strictly a documentary as it is a fleeting exploration of the lives of those in Martincek's photos and others like them. That's a pretty daring, bold approach. It leaves Hanák to deal in textures rather than surfaces.

We see static pictures followed closely by the subject of the photo stream, only now he's in motion and speaking. He's telling us a little about himself, maybe about how old he was at the time of the photographs. He has requests for the filmmaker, who's somewhat oblivious and instead perhaps focused on capturing the surrounding mood and atmosphere. The detailed monochrome shows each and every piece of stubble on the elderly man's face. He's a symbol but just one of many in the brief, hour-plus running time of the film. More than perhaps anything else, he's a representation of the bigger, bolder intent behind the film. To borrow from the booklet essay inside the DVD case, the film is interested in the "space between documentary and fictional film" which is "shaped by real life." This is no instance of a point-and-shoot capturing of reality any more than it is a manufactured narrative using nonprofessional actors.

There's also a mystical quality to Pictures of the Old World. It's not just of the "old world" but also somewhat otherworldly as well. Exploration of outer space and talk of the spiritual factor in rather unexpectedly. The simple, close to the earth quality of much of the film almost feels ominous or pessimistic when set against this backdrop. These are people unable to leave even the narrowest confines of their existence. They are, as the initial narration informs, "rooted in the soil they came from" - a depressingly accurate summation of so many of us.

If there's a larger moral to be gleaned from what Hanák gives us it might be something in the vein of the importance of appreciating the everyday things which sustain us. It really is not, in any significant way, a depiction of suffering or misery. If the viewer sees that then it's more likely due to what he or she is personally attaching to the film. What unfolds on screen is somewhat raw and unrefined but nonetheless beautiful to witness. It's a one-of-a-kind experience, starkly fascinating.


The Disc

Second Run DVD brings Pictures of the Old World to disc in the UK with this region-free edition. It's a marvelous release of a vital film.

The restoration of the film looks exceptionally good here. It's presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with deep blacks and wonderful contrast. Integrity of the film grain registers quite well. Overall, it's a gorgeous-looking effort.

Audio retains the original Slovak mono and does so without any significant issues. There were no drop-outs or other distractions to be heard. It's a clear, consistent track. Subtitles in English are included and are optional.

A pair of Dušan Hanák's short films are included as special features. "Mass" (11:12) and "Old Shatterhand Came to Us" (12:03) both also look quite good in addition to being highly interesting precursors to the feature.

An essential, lengthy essay by Jonathan Owen is included in the 16-page booklet. It touches on the director and his other work in addition to having a good section devoted to Pictures of the Old World. For some owners of this release the film will seemingly have just dropped out of the sky and Owen's writing should serve as a welcome, solid source of background. Nice stills and disc and film credits help to fill out the remainder of the insert.

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