Saturday, October 25, 2008


Comedy. 1972.
Directed by Rolands Kalnins.
Based on a novel by Pavils Rozitis.
Starring: Eduards Pavuls.

It is impossible to view “Ceplis”, directed by Rolands Kalnins and starring Edmunds Pavuls, without putting it in the context of the time and the place it was made. The year was 1972 and the place was Soviet Latvia. There is good and bad here.
The good is that this is a great looking film. The cinematography jumps right off the screen. Looking at the film with the sound off you could imagine that this was a film from Hollywood or Europe, circa 1970. The lighting is just right, the composition of shots shows attention to detail, the costumes and actors are all just so. One of the advantages of working in the Soviet system was that filmmakers had access to equipment. They had crews and talent to milk that equipment, usually quite a few notches below what was available in the West, for all it was worth. They had time to film without the usual budget constraints that present day productions have to deal with.
Unfortunately, watching a film with the sound off stopped being a true option since “The Jazz Singer” premiered in 1927. Its not that the acting is bad or that the technical quality of the sound is “that” bad. (The movie seems to have been shot without sync sound and the dialogue added at post-production, but I am discovering that is more of a pet peeve of mine that doesn’t bother most. Felini shot most of his films this way and few complain about his work.) The bad is that since it was made in Soviet Latvia in 1972 it couldn’t just focus on telling a story without also, none too subtly, having to impart some ideological message as well. It is this need to drive home an ideological message that ultimately sinks the film.
"Ceplis’ is the story of the ultimate survivor. It tells the adventures, or misadventures, of a businessman who will do anything to survive and prosper. Ceplis (Pavuls) establishes a joint stock company that will make bricks from Latvian clay (Brunais Zelts or Brown Gold) and sell them overseas. There is no shortage of those who are lured by the promise that the phrase “Made in Latvia” will soon ring across the world. The possibility of becoming rich beyond their wildest dreams doesn’t hurt either. Soon everyone is scheming to acquire as much stock as they can. Alas, the clay used for these bricks contains too much chalk, the bricks themselves are worthless, and as fast as they’ve been trying to get in everyone now is trying to get out.
This is not a subtle film. There is not a single character whose motivation is anything other than greed. All of them, from the mighty captains of industry to the lowliest office clerks, from the highest politician to the local police officer, even their wives and paramours, are tainted by either their proximity to, or desire, of wealth. And it is this greed, of course, that leads to their eventual downfall.
The novel, written by Pavils Rozitis in the 1930's, on which the screenplay was based, was intended as a satire of contemporary times, but the film comes across as a heavy handed attempt at illustrating the evils of capitalism and, by extension, Latvian nationalism. Greed is bad. Nationalism is merely a tool to justify greed.
Ironically, this same stereotypical presentation of Latvian business and politicians can be found in the present. Let’s hope that if anyone ever thinks of remaking “Ceplis” they will remember that satire works best when it is subtle.

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