Film "Four White Shirts" ("Breathe Deeply"), 1967, by Director Rolands Kalniņš (1922–2022)
Although like other cultural earthquakes of the sixties European New Wave cinema mostly left the stagnant USSR behind, there were some sparkling gems amongst the gloom. “Four White Shirts” (original “Breathe Deeply”) (Elpojiet dziļi… (Četri balti krekli)), a 1967 Latvian cinema classic directed by Rolands Kalniņš, was both a creative tour de force and a challenge to totalitarian conformity, whose post-production life surreally mirrored the story within the film itself.
The film centre’s around Cēzars Kalniņš (Uldis Pūcītis (1937−2000)), by day a telephone repairman, by night the charismatic leader of the youthful rock group “Optimisti” (The Optimists). Cēzars’ lyrics increasingly endorse sexual freedom and reject hypocritical social values, until he is reported to the authorities by moralistic official Anita Sondore (Dina Kuple (1930−2010)).
A Kafkaesque struggle ensues between petty bureaucrats demanding changes to the group’s material, band members willing to compromise, and stubborn, idealistic Cēzars. This drama is paralleled in the ambivalent relationship between Cēzars and his girlfriend Bella (Līga Liepiņa (1946)).
This battle between creative freedom and the dead hand of censorship also engulfed the movie itself. Numerous bodies tasked with policing film content insisted on changes and clarifications, even forcing the title to be altered. The film’s key song “Four White Shirts” mocked the tendency of Soviet man to change his opinions like his shirts depending on which boss he is talking to. So a less confronting reference from the film’s dialogue, “Breathe Deeply”, was imposed.
In the end, “Four White Shirts” was not banned outright, but such tight restrictions were placed on its screening and distribution that it was effectively consigned to oblivion.
Two decades later, as Gorbachev’s glasnost unfroze the cultural climate in the late 1980s, “Four White Shirts” was finally shown on big screens and got a rapturous reception. The film’s music score by Imants Kalniņš (1941) also had a life of its own. Songs such as “A Song about Napoleon” (Dziesma par Napoleonu), “The Cuckoo’s Voice” (Dzeguzes balss) and “I Am Rich” (Es esmu bagāts) later entered the repertoire of the rock group “Menuets” and became hugely popular in Latvia.
In 2018, the digitally restored work was included in the Cannes Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival.
You can watch the film online for free within Latvia on the portal www.filmas.lv or at the Audiovisual Reading Room at the National Library of Latvia.
„Film Director Rolands Kalniņš” (2005) from portretfilm series directed by Ilona Brūvere (2005). Mediju komunikāciju darbnīca KINOLATS in cooperation with State Culture Capital Foundation and Latvian Television 1, 2015. (in Latvian)
Dita Rietuma on the film "Breathe Deeply" ("Four White Shirts") in Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Brochure for the film "Breathe Deeply" (1986). Rīga: Latvijas Republikāniskais filmu iznomāšanas kantoris, Informācijas un reklāmas nodaļa. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian and Russian)
Dita Rietuma on the film "Breathe Deeply" ("Four White Shirts") in Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Četri balti krekli [DVD filma]. (2015). Rīga: Latvijas Nacionālais kino centrs.
Matīsa, Kristīne. (2005). Elpojiet dziļi (1967). No: Kristīne Matīsa. Vecās labās… Latviešu kinoklasikas 50 spožākās pērles (87.-96. lpp.). Rīga: Atēna.