CaSFFA 2021 – Pacho, the Thief of Hybe (1976)

The 9th Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia (7-16 October 2021) has crept up on me unawares, so I intend to spend the next few days sampling this year’s offerings. First up is Pacho, the Thief of Hybe [Pacho, Hybský zbojník] (1976), a digital restoration from the Slovak Film Archive, a fairly broad and simple comedy parodying the local equivalent of Robin Hood.

The “King of Thieves” Juraj Jánošík (1688-1713) is a Slovakian folk hero reputed to have robbed from the rich and given to the poor, a symbol of resistance to oppression so popular in the region that one band of anti-Nazi Slovak partisans named themselves in his honour. His appearances in popular literature date back to 1785 and there have been at least nine different film versions of his story since 1921, the most recent being Agnieszka Holland’s Janosik: A True Story [Janosik. Prawdziwa historia] (2018).

Pacho (Jozef Kroner), on the other hand, is a hapless bumbler only slightly more intelligent than everybody else in the film, fumbling his way through the story thanks to what is either a brief outbreak of supernatural powers or a series of astonishing coincidences. Returning to his village of Hybe after a fourteen-year absence, Pacho hopes to reunite with his sweetheart Hanka (Eva Máziková), whom he rather unreasonably expects to have remained piningly devoted to him the whole time. Happening across Count Erdödy (Marián Labuda) beating one of the local peasants, who has sent his daughter to work in his place while he gathers wood, Pacho snatches the whip from the hands of the unwary nobleman – but his efforts go unappreciated as the old man keeps handing the whip back to the Count, until Pacho finally gets frustrated and beats the Count himself. Both Count and peasant run off, at which point Pacho is immediately surrounded by the local brigands who force him to join them. Asking hopefully whether he could be their leader, Pacho is challenged to a contest of strength by captain Jano (Karol Cálik). A series of Pacho’s sneezes appear to fell the brigands and a nearby tree; the birds appear to obey when he asks them to start and stop singing; and he wins a drinking contest by pulling out a flask of liquid gunpowder.

Their initial attempt at robbery isn’t very successful, netting them a large amount of fine clothing rather than the money for which they’d hoped. Considering the clothing ruined, Countess Erdödyová (Ida Rapaicová) poutingly instructs her husband to burn it and the fire spreads to the village, leading Pacho and his men to burn the chateau. This turns into a sequence of retaliatory burnings which he and his band extend to all of the other local noblemen in a form of petty class warfare. An eventual confrontation between the noblemen and the bandits ends up with the noblemen defeated and their wives delightedly having their way with the willing bandits, followed by a spate of newborns nine months later. All except for Pacho, who spurns the attentions of Erdödyová and seeks out his beloved Hanka only to find that she’s been married for seven years – and although she’s more than willing to dump her husband immediately, Pacho runs off cursing his misfortune. The disgraced noblemen seek the assistance of Empress Mária Terézia (Slávka Budínová), but their description of him is so exaggerated that when her troops finally arrive (with the intent of carrying Pacho away to be the Empress’ husband) none of them are willing to believe that they’ve found him.

Martin Ťapák has a long career in Slovak cinema, with 40 directing credits to his name and additional work as an actor and choreographer, and this film in particular is apparently well regarded – but I assume that I lack the necessary cultural background to appreciate its achievements, as I simply cannot see what all the fuss is about. If not for the fact that the film otherwise appears to be competently made, from the way the various characters shamble around in front of the camera I would have assumed the director was a novice – I can only assume that this was a deliberate stylistic choice as a part of puncturing the myth. It’s in line with the general style of comedy in the script, but to me it all seemed very heavy-handed and uninteresting. There are some attempts to satirise the relationship between noble and peasant, but since almost everybody in the movie is an idiot it doesn’t really go anywhere. I can at least offer some positivity in relation to Svetozár Stracina’s jaunty folk-based musical score, which evokes a strong sense of place and supports the general antics going on around it.

As a counter to my fairly harsh perspective, I feel that I should point the interested reader to Nicholas Hudáč’s essay “Disarming the Bandit – Pacho, Brigand of Hybe and the Attempt to Neutralize an Ethnic Symbol” (East European Film Bulletin Vol 51, March 2015). Thanks to his greater understanding of the cultural context, he was able to find far more to appreciate here than I was – and while he hasn’t won me over to a better appreciation of the form of comedy on display, I found his analysis of the way in which the film engages with Juraj Jánošík’s cultural legacy to be fascinating.

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