Slovak director is stuck in shallow end of Seasons

The Slovakian film “66 Seasons,” which centers on the huge town pool in Kosice, is a loving tribute made in memory of the director’s grandfather, who would probably have loved it. As for the rest of us who see it Feb. 22 at the Jewish Film Festival in S.F.’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I’m not so sure.

Peter Kerekes, who wrote, directed and produced this 86-minute documentary, tries hard to make the stories set in and around the community pool be a metaphor for the entire history of the 20th century, as well as philosophical and moral questions of life and death. But he drowns in the attempt.

Because it is a mosaic of the memories of generations of bathers, it’s very hit-and-miss. The roughness of the badly translated subtitles (“the and (sic) of the war,” “to memory of my grandfather”), while understandable for a zero-budget Eastern European TV documentary, do not add to its charm; rather, it makes the ragged edges stand out, like the exposed boom mikes visibly thrust in folks’ faces.

The director tries simultaneously to be hand-held charming as well as experimental, while coming across closer to amateurish and pretentious.

There is an absurd amount of footage spent on close-ups of young, nubile girls (literally zooming in on their skimpy bikini-clad crotches and cleavage) while pretending to be having a serious conversation with 80-year-old women (including the filmmaker’s grandmother) in the foreground.

The off-camera interviewer relentlessly asks them to comment on how they feel about their bodies now and compare themselves to these young girls, even going so far as having one pick out a girl whom she was like so he can “recreate” her memories of lying in the pool while the town was being bombed. One of the women cannily shuts him up, saying, “We were young and beautiful. Now we are just beautiful.”

The movie’s recreations range from poignant to arty to absurd, like having an old man who makes model planes hold one up to simulate the bombing.

He is standing atop a roof, while sunbathing, topless girls sit uncomprehendingly just off to the center. Kerekes defines the word “gratuitous” with shots like this.

Yet some of the ideas are brilliant and startling, like an underwater card game or having an actor dressed as Hitler in a swimsuit walk among the swimmers.

The film comes alive in brief moments when a Jewish survivor recounts the horror of inadvertently causing her mother’s death in the camp. Her mother is shot and then tossed into the sea, while Kerekes shows kids now playfully tossing a person into the pool.

There is an interesting story of a photographer who managed to capture the whole Russian occupation of the tanks before he was shot by a stray bullet. The camera pulls away to reveal that the man recounting this tale (intercut with his archival footage) is confined to a wheelchair. Poignant and interesting, but what it has to do with the pool — save that the cameraman has positioned him next to it — is marginal at best.

To make a film about a place where, in the director’s words, “history came to bathe” is an ambitious and interesting idea. But it comes across more as a home movie that will mean more to the participants who lived through it than to other viewers.

<b"66 Seasons" (in Hungarian, Slovak and Czech with English subtitles) plays at the Jewish Film Festival 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F.