Director Karel Kachyna, whose career has spanned the volatile political terrain of Czechoslovakia since 1954, offers a remarkable achievement in THE COW, a folkloric tale revealing the circularity of life's labors and drives, and the perseverance and hope that sustain their rhythm. Based
on the novel by Jan Prochazka, this film was made for Czech television.
It is the turn of the century in rural Czechoslovakia. Adam (Radek Holub), son of a local whore, has led an impoverished life in a cabin situated at the highest point in a mountain village. His childhood is suggested through flashbacks: his mother disports drunkenly with men; Adam throws himself
from a cliff in despair and permanently damages his body; the boy begs his mother to wipe the lipstick from her lips. Adam's mother is now on her deathbed and suffering greatly. One day, he leads their cow, the family's only valuable possession, down the steep hill to exchange it for a vial of
morphine. In his absence, the dying woman staggers to her feet and sees her wasted reflection in the mirror. When he returns with the morphine, she is dead, her face caked with white powder, her lips smeared with red lipstick.
After his mother's death, Adam is alone on his hill. When Rosa (Alena Mihulova), a peasant girl who shares his mother's sensuality, falls in love with him, he cruelly spurns her advances. Rosa persists, and one day Adam returns home to find his clothes drying on the line. In a rage he attacks and
rapes her. But when she starts to leave, he asks her to stay.
A bond of love and friendship develops as they work side by side on the land and bathe their weary bodies in the stream. Their dream is to buy a cow, and thus lighten their burden, and when that day arrives, they are intoxicated with happiness. They treat the beast with care and gentleness,
wrapping flowers around its horns and giving it their sweaters in the rain. The cow is their savior, embodying all their hopes and desires.
Adam and Rosa marry and have a baby, and when Rosa falls ill, Adam repeats the gestures and sacrifices he made during his mother's illness--selling the coveted cow and returning too late with the morphine. After Rosa's death, Adam is left alone to care for the infant until the arrival of a homely
peasant woman who offers to keep house and care for the baby. There is a terrible silence between them, interrupted by a single violent outburst. Time passes, and Adam returns one day with a new cow, then gestures to the enormous mound of dirt that he and Rosa had transported up the hill bucket by
bucket, explaining that it will make a good field.
Kachyna uses simple metaphors and images to tell his melancholy story. The casting is impeccable, with the leads exhibiting a relentless stoicism that takes on a kind of beauty, suggesting the eternal cycle of toil, desire, and satiety. The cinematography by Petr Hojda is stunning, creating a
mysterious world of fog and damp green hills, gray mornings and weary evenings. (Violence, nudity, adult situations.)
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