A Jester's Tale (Blaznova kronika) Review

From start to finish - 81 minutes on this DVD - Karel Zeman's 1964 film A Jester's Tale (Bláznova kronika) is a delight. The brevity is a strength, to be sure, but it's the inventive way Zeman tells the story that makes the picture such an enjoyable experience. Combining brilliant bursts of animation with satirical live-action set amid the Thirty Years' War of the early to mid-1600s, A Jester's Tale is a wonderful hodgepodge that still feels fresh and unique. Think Georges Méliès in Czech, then updated and dipped slightly in a bath of increased political awareness. Smack dab in the middle of the Czech New Wave, A Jester's Tale nonetheless feels little like those other notable pictures being produced in the country during its time.

Our plot has a group of wanderers that consists of farmhand Petr (Petr Kostka), older ally and roguish survivor Matej (Miroslav Holub), and the adorable Lenka (Emilia Vasaryova), who's picked up along with her donkey mid-journey. Their loyalties are somewhat malleable. Safety is the main priority. When they're caught by an approaching group of musketeers on horseback they initially try to cloak themselves in the king's garb as a measure of support. That soon backfires upon realizing it's actually the opposition doing the approaching. The result involves them being hauled off to a dungeon of sorts. Only a case of mistaken identity gets Petr, Matej, and Lenka, who's now wearing a jester's hat, out of an almost certain death sentence. The catch is that Petr has suddenly become Komtessa Veronika's third fiance.

Conceived in part by Pavel Jurácek (also credited for co-writing Ikarie XB 1, Daisies, and Josef Killian) and adapted well enough, the narrative still pales next to the fantastic visuals. Zeman loads up his picture with models and sketched backdrops while still finding lots of room for more overtly animated interruptions. A menacing God of War appears in the sky on several occasions, adding destructive wind atop his perch. The frequent use of animation creates an unusual mood for the film, and one which helps to give it a timeless quality. Those potentially influenced, whether it's Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton or any number of other creative forces, may have appreciated the respect and maturity shown by Zeman. A Jester's Tale never feels like it's aimed at younger audiences (though I suppose there's little reason they couldn't enjoy it all the same).

It's a bit amazing, too, to be able to watch scenes like when Petr sword-fights against a troop of soldiers in the same film that also includes, for example, a long pan upwards that's intended to show the side of a castle but is clearly a drawn version of such. You get this kind of intense, swashbuckling action sequence mixed in with obviously artificial effects. And, yet, nothing ever feels cheap or like we're merely seeing a low-budget movie. It all achieves a far more charming result. The entire look and construction of the film becomes a kind of directorial flourish. It's a splendid achievement. We're able to experience this odd merging of live-action and invented visuals in the same film, even in the same frame at times.

And, on second thought, let's not be too hasty in dismissing the narrative portion, as these characters are formed well enough to inspire some real concern in the viewer. The decision to put Lenka in a jester's hat is particularly inspired. It's, at the very least, an infectiously cute touch. While Petr is a little on the bland side, he's also a decent enough heroic figure who dashes as need be. We care about our fearful trio. The whole group dynamic is a bit cardboard-y but not to the extent of causing dismissal. What we're given we like. Otherwise, the innovation of merging the pen and the performer as Zeman does tends to dominate the reaction. Even so, that leads us to an overwhelmingly positive take. It's quite difficult indeed to not be charmed by a movie which shows a bird almost painfully squeezing out eggs via the wonderful world of animation.


The Disc

Second Run DVD is an obvious choice for putting out a 1964 Czech film but the unusualness of A Jester's Tale is a definite departure from the UK label's standard, often challenging fare. The region-free PAL disc is dual-layered. It also has perhaps Second Run's most endearing main menu.

The film is presented in 1.85:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Video quality begins a bit roughly during the opening titles, exhibiting quite a few speckles, but things soon stabilize and we're treated to a solid presentation with only the occasional remnant of dirt or debris throughout the film. Contrast is more than adequate here and the black and white image appears quite well. Detail is also reasonably strong for a film of such vintage and origin. No significant quibbles to be made.

Audio emerges more or less cleanly in a Czech mono track. There remains a mild hiss buried in the background of the mix but it's consistent and more or less unobtrusive. There are optional English language subtitles included. They are white in color.

No supplements on the disc but a nice 12-page booklet inside the case shouldn't go unnoticed. It contains a lengthy essay by Ian Haydn Smith on director Karel Zeman. The piece mostly gives background on the filmmaker before spending the last few paragraphs discussing a little about A Jester's Tale. Stills and credits help to fill out the booklet.


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