When Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball first appeared, it was banned “forever” in Czechoslovakia where it was made. The authorities felt it made sport of the communist party — or was even outright subversive. Forman, being no fool, claimed it was nothing of the kind. Apparently, he felt that he could get away with making such a film by burying it in a knockabout comedy populated with not-very-bright yokels. The problem was the yokels were almost all bureaucrats and represented the government on however small a level. Unsurprisingly, it would be Forman’s final film in Czechoslovakia. Of course, it would also be the beginning of a new career on the world stage.
Taken out of any historical perspective, The Firemen’s Ball is a moderately amusing little movie that is raised to a somewhat higher level by a certain sweetness and generosity of spirit. Perhaps because Forman insisted on working with a largely nonprofessional cast (a few were from his previous film), the slapstick aspects of the comedy often feel a little phony and forced. The saving grace — besides the tone and political subtext — is that the film is so packed with incident that its brief 71-minute running time flies past. It’s not just that everything that can go wrong at the firemen’s ball does go wrong — spectacularly so — it’s that the whole thing is in the hands of the inept and is predicated on a somewhat shaky premise. The firemen have turned their annual ball into an event, complete with a lottery, in order to present their former captain with a memento on his 86th birthday. Now, the old man may or may not know that he’s dying of cancer (supposedly no one told him this) but it’s frankly unclear how much he understands anyway.
Besides, the collected firemen are so wrapped up in the details of the event, that it’s a zoo. The lottery prizes keep disappearing from the display table (no wonder in this impoverished community), and the obviously doomed attempt to replicate the Miss Universe contest using the decidedly unprepossessing (and largely uninterested) local girls proves a major distraction. That contest, in fact, becomes such a disaster (most of the girls have locked themselves in the bathroom) that a fire alarm actually comes as a relief. That doesn’t work out either for various reasons, and the best idea the firemen can come up with to warm up the old man whose house is burning down is to move him closer to the blaze. The biggest problem with it all is that once you get a feel for the way things work in the film, it’s kind of hard not to guess what the ultimate gag is going to be.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present The Firemen’s Ball Friday, Jan. 17, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com