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The volunteer fire department in a small town is having a big party when the ex-boss of the department celebrates his 86th birthday. The whole town is invited but things don't go as planned. Someone is stealing the prizes to the lottery and the candidates for the Miss Fire-Department beauty contest are neither willing nor particularly beautiful.Written by
Milos Forman's best known film is probably the awarded 1975 mental institution tale One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Jack Nicholson, but his early Czechoslovakian movies are not to be missed either by admirers of his later work. The 1967 comedy The Firemen's Ball has been interpreted as an allegory for the Socialist system that had a major effect on how people lived in Eastern Europe at the time, but it also works as an entertaining little flick in its own right.
The loose plot was inspired by an actual firemen's ball that Forman and his screenwriter friends once attended. The aging fire department of a small village is arranging a ball in honour of their elderly chairman who is turning 86 and, unbeknownst to him, dying of cancer. The program is to include at least music, dancing, a beauty contest for the ladies and a lottery with various prizes, but it seems that Murphy's Law is alive and well in the village: the lottery prizes keep getting stolen at an increasing rate, nobody wants to participate in the beauty pageant and the general chaos grows more and more out of control. Soon the firemen get to demonstrate their occupational skills in a genuine incident.
Most of the actors were reportedly real firemen from the town where the movie was shot, but despite their lack of acting experience they fit in their roles perfectly. The grumpy men's arguments about the stressful arrangements are pretty hilarious, but the women are funny too even though their roles are somewhat smaller. Also, personally I didn't find any of the reluctant beauty contestants ugly at all, unlike the frustrated committee members! In addition, I should give a nod to the catchy ballroom music that is playing for a lot of the time and even references a Beatles song at one point. It is possible that the atmosphere-driven collection of errors and misadventures may feel aimless to some viewers who would prefer a stronger plot, but those with a fondness for looser narratives should find it easy to enjoy the firemen's adversities.
Besides the comical bumbling, there are also more melancholic moments in the short movie. The fire scene near the end carries a feel of powerlessness when an old man watches his house burn down while the firemen futilely try to put the flames out by shoveling snow into the fire. Still, the service of drinks is never interrupted during the turmoil, keeping up appearances no matter what. The whole plot line of the stolen lottery prizes also culminates in a wistful moment when the honorary chairman finally gets to accept his gift after sincerely thanking his colleagues for the help they have given over the years. This lack of the oft-mentioned solidarity among the masses (not so much among individuals) may have been what prompted the Czechoslovakian officials to originally ban the film "forever".
As for myself, I can say I enjoyed The Firemen's Ball more than Loves of a Blonde (1965), the other early Forman film I have seen at the moment. Czech cinema in general is something I'd like to get better acquainted with later, but for now I can say that The Firemen's Ball is probably my favourite of the handful of movies I have seen from the country.
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