The good, the bad and the satirical

Pre-World War II Latvian industrial leaders, politicians and bankers—and the lives they lead—are studied in Ceplis.

It is impossible to view Ceplis, directed by Rolands Kalniņš and starring Eduards Pāvuls, without putting it in the context of the time and place it was made. The year was 1972 and the place was Soviet Latvia. There is good and bad here.

The good part 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 Western 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, although it was usually quite a few notches below what was available in the West. But they had crews and talent to milk that equipment. They also 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. It’s not that the acting in Ceplis 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. Fellini shot most of his films this way and few complain about his work.)

The bad part is that because the film 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. 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 1930s businessman who will do anything to survive and prosper. Ceplis (Pāvuls) establishes a joint stock company that will make bricks from Latvian clay (brūnais 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 the bricks contains too much chalk, the bricks themselves are worthless, and as fast as they tried to get in on the deal everyone soon wants out.

This is not a subtle film. Not a single character is motivated by anything other than greed. All of them—from the mighty captain of industry to the lowliest office clerk, from the highest politician to the local police officer, and even their wives and paramours—are tainted by either their proximity to, or desire for, wealth. And it is this greed, of course, that leads to their eventual downfall.

The film’s screenplay is based on a novel, written by Pāvils Rozītis in the 1930s, that 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 people 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.



Rolands Kalniņš, director

Rīgas Kinostudija,  1972

Notes: In Latvian. Drama, monochrome, 72 minutes. Screenplay by Viktors Lorencs, based on a novel by Pāvils Rozītis; camera: Gvido Skulte; music: M. Zariņš; principal cast: Gunārs Cilinskis, Helga Dancberga, Eduards Pāvuls, Regīna Razuma, Aivars Siliņš, Velta Straume and Rolands Zagorskis.

2 thoughts on “The good, the bad and the satirical

  1. Thanks for this comment. It’s so great some one writes and reviews Latvian cinema – classic cinema that is way toooo undermined and underrated. I agree with your standpoint – the stylistic quality is nice, soundtrack (music) is apt but the ‘evil and corrupted capitalism’ idea sticks out. Even though for an independent spectator this is a well narrated, visually appealing movie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *