She Grazed Horses on Concrete/Concrete Pasture

English Title: She Grazed Horses on Concrete/Concrete Pasture

Original Title: Pásla kone na betóne

Country of Origin: Slovakia

Studio: Slovenská filmová tvorba Koliba (SFT)

Director: Štefan Uher

Producer(s): Peter Drobka

Screenplay: Štefan Uher, Milka Zimková

Cinematographer: Stanislav Szomolányi

Art Director: Anton Krajčovič

Editor: Maximilián Remeň

Runtime: 78 minutes

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance

Language: Slovak

Starring/Cast: Milka Zimková, Veronika Jeníková, Marie Logojdová, Ľubomír Paulovič

Year: 1982

Volume: East European


Johanka has had a fling with a well-digger, whom she knew she would not see again. Eighteen years later, she is a single mother honored at the local co-op farm, although her salary falls short of those of the men she works with. She shuns her life-long suitor Berty. But, encouraged by her also-single friend Jozefka, who believes a woman without a man is nothing, Johanka courts the new school teacher, only to discover that he is married. Johanka’s daughter Pavlínka commutes to work by bus, which gives the village gossips the opportunity to remind her of her unknown father. She loses her virginity to Private Jirka, who promptly disappears, and Johanka begins to see abortion or marriage as her daughter’s only options and attempts to arrange both. After placing a personal ad on Pavlínka’s behalf, Johanka meets Štefan and ultimately falls in love with him. And thereafter the already closely intertwined fates of mother and daughter revolve around an impending marriage and a birth.

Pásla kone na betóne/She Grazed Horses on Concrete explores such serious topics as a woman’s capacity to hold her own in society, contemporary sexual mores and gender inequality and abortion; and it balances these with moments of comedy, irony, and social criticism. Indeed, this potent combination made the film one of the biggest domestic blockbusters in Slovak cinema (its idiosyncratic title quotes a verse from a waggish folk song about a woman striving to accomplish impossible feats - it continues: ‘She bathed in razor blades’); and for the next four years it remained the second highest-grossing indigenous film in Slovakia since the repressions incurred following the 1968 Soviet Invasion, as well as the highest-grossing Slovak film in the former Czechoslovakia’s Czech lands. Released on DVD a quarter of a century later, it sold out within weeks.


     The film, co-written and directed by the prolific and acclaimed Štefan Uher (director of the lauded Slnko v sieti/The Sun in a Net (1962)), one of the key precursors of the Czech New Wave), places female subjectivity at its center as openly and matter-of-factly as much of Central European film-making had been portraying masculinity. In an echo of the documentary style of his earliest work, Uher creates some of the humor and social criticism by intercutting apparently discursive shots of several quaint or embarrassing scenes that are thus made to comment on each other, as when shots of the protagonist Pavlínka losing her virginity alternate with shots of her mother, an amateur actress, expressing her love on stage to her real-life lover (and all set against the backdrop of a village fair with cows grazing behind the scene). It was also among the first Slovak films to make extensive use of a regional, colloquial variety of the language common to the region in which the story takes place.


     A key figure in the film’s development, execution and sympathetic treatment of female desire and tragedy was Milka Zimková. She wrote the stories from which it is adapted (her immensely successful 1980 debut collection, also titled She Grazed Horses on Concrete), in addition to co-writing the screenplay and playing the lead role. Zimková had appeared in Uher’s three previous films before turning to literature. And although their screenplay absorbs several of the themes and characters from her fiction (principally the subjugation of women, symbolized most clearly in the film when Pavlinka’s mother Johanka is unofficially recognized as the best at a co-op awards ceremony but the actual prize goes to the second best man) there is in fact little resemblance between the book’s self-contained tales and Uher’s integrated storyline.


     She Grazed Horses on Concrete can be regarded as one of the first socially critical Slovak films following the repressive era of the 1970s. Its satirical aim is not at communist politics per se, but at everyday blunders engendered both by the regime and by human folly, such as Johanka’s luxury bathroom obtained by her suitor through bribes, or towards the end her wastefully lavish wedding ceremony. The other chief concern of the narrative is the gap between consciousness and reality. Johanka, who worries about being single and becomes obsessed that such a fate should not befall her daughter, is generally seen in attractive costumes and make-up. And indeed in many ways she may be regarded as having a substantially better life than any of the married characters, female or male, who are constant targets of the film’s ridicule and major sources of humour (such as Johanka’s neighbour becoming bent on committing a melodramatic public suicide because of her husband’s continual infidelity).


     The disparity between Johanka’s awareness of her highly respected position at work and the reality she lives as a well-to-do and well-liked single mother, who does not even care to marry her long-time suitor, also factors in this thematic, and builds in the film’s bitterly ironic final scenes. In an effort to accommodate what she thinks society expects (and even though abortion was available at no cost from Czechoslovakia’s health care), Johanka vainly attempts an obscure procedure on her daughter designed to induce an abortion that would not appear as such. Through the mirrored patterning of camera angles in the carefully contrasted final scenes, the film draws implicit parallels between Johanka’s almost idealistic perception of what is proper (i.e. to be married with a child) and the reality of the society in which she lives, with Uher alluding to the necessity therein of a practical attitude, a reconciling of the two – as with Pavlínka’s husband, whose own children were born out of wedlock and who is happy to accept his future stepchild. It is a significant point in a piercing comedy that seems significantly ahead of its time.

Author of this review: Martin Votruba