Marketa Lazarová (1967)
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This film is especially remarkable due to successful conversion of a great book into the great film (I don't recall many other examples at this level) and due to its capture of medieval. I hate medieval films with clean, stylish and crafty interiors, clothes etc. and bright light, for medieval was DARK, HARSH and DIRTY. What's the best part, Kozlik and Lazar were not just family-chieftains or family-heads, they were NOBLE MEN (feudals) and no matter whether they looked (and acted) like prowlers or not. Neither manners nor dresses were the significance of nobles in early medieval, the sword was (which no commoner was allowed to posses), better say swords and estates were.
This film is basically about weakness and strength in men. Lazar is thief and coward, kind of vulture, but Kozlik with his sons represents the willful and harsh power and bravery that summons an admiration of a sort, for they fear only the God, what makes them better christians than the sneaky Lazar jaws-full-of-Jesus.
Marketa, the unspoiled sweet child resembles all the clear, bright and pure in this world (and the only positive aspect of Lazar's sorry life), and is spoiled as everything clean and pure in this world might be. And she's devoted, first to God, then to earthly Mikolas.
I love the metaphore with zealot and little lamb, the connection between Marketa and the God's beast is obvious. Agnus Dei is another clear and bright to be tainted and consumpted by wild Kozlik's House.
And the sound and music, that's the world if its own, there's no music but sudden choir impacts!
Unlike these movies, I wasn't consciously aware of MARKETA LAZAROVA when the infectious buzz about its impending release hit the Internet but, as I later found out, the film was actually mentioned, ever so fleetingly, in one of my father's old movie magazines. Again, when the DVD was eventually released, there was a negative vibe about the alleged visual deficiencies of Second Run's disc but, in hindsight, these were quite needlessly exaggerated. Ultimately, an awesome and, as it turned out, essential movie experience such as this one deserves to be seen right away and to keep waiting for that perfectly pristine print to rear its unlikely head is utterly pointless. Alas, the Czech New Wave is still a largely undiscovered segment of cinema history for me so I am not in a position to suitably assess whether MARKETA LAZAROVA is indeed the greatest Czech movie ever made (as it had been judged in a 1998 poll among 100 native film critics). Suffice it to say that this ostensibly obscure film has by now figured in a number of published all-time best polls and, consequently, its status is deservedly well-established. Hopefully, as it was in my case, Second Run's DVD will serve as the introduction to many an adventurous film enthusiast in the future
Since my overall experience of MARKETA LAZAROVA was such a positive one, it seems only right to get my quibbles with the film out of the way first and there are basically two of them: a muddled storyline which, for most of the film's first half, left me rather perplexed as to which of the two warring factions the characters whose exploits I was following on screen belonged and, while things got clearer as time went by, the individuals themselves (with the obvious exception of the titular character) did not exactly garner much sympathy. I suppose that for a movie with a running time of almost three hours these flaws would usually be significantly detrimental to one's enjoyment of the whole: however, the definite impression I was left with while watching was that, despite the eponymous title, the director's intent was not to narrate a conventional life history but actually to create a visual tapestry of the medieval era onto celluloid and, in this regard, to say that he succeeded would be the understatement of the year. In fact, along with Andrei Tarkovsky's ANDREI RUBLEV (shot in 1965 but actually unreleased until 1972), I'd venture to say that MARKETA LAZAROVA is the most convincingly realized cinematic portrait of those turbulent times, distinguishing Frantisek Vlacil's vision as an overwhelmingly expansive and stunningly visual one.
In this context, it is quite appropriate that the titular character (played by a future Presidential candidate, the beautiful Magda Vasaryova) is practically silent for most of the film; she is first seen about to enter into a holy order but is eventually abducted, raped and impregnated by the feral Mikolas (who was actually raised by wolves) whom she comes to love eventually. Another parallel and equally unlikely relationship we are witness to is the one which blossoms between the earthy Alexandria (who is also involved in some brief but startling instances of full-frontal nudity) and her young, aristocratic captive who happens to be a German Bishop; it is worth noting here that Alexandria had already almost cost the life of her brother Adam when his own father had severed his arm in punishment for their incestuous coupling! Interestingly, the film is divided into two parts respectively entitled "Straba" and "The Lamb Of God" and punctuated by frequent, verbose, half Dickensian-half picaresque chapter headings, not to mention the presence on the soundtrack of a bemused narrator who, at one point, even takes on the role of God while interacting with a monk! This is not the only instance of whimsical inventiveness present in MARKETA LAZAROVA perhaps adopted by the director to counter the oppressively bleak ambiance created by the forbidding snowy landscape and dense forest settings which can actually claim to be the film's true main characters. As I said previously, striking images abound throughout: the intermittent, sinister appearance of the pack of wolves is impressively eerie, the distraught monk looking for his lamb and eventually losing her decapitated head down a clifftop, a horse drowning in a puddle on a deserted no man's land, the camera occasionally taking on a feverishly first person viewpoint according to the character at hand, the effective use of unheralded off-kilter compositions (including a totally bizarre arrow-in-the-eye shot!), etc. Having said that, Zdenek Liska's choral, percussive and electronic score is equally imaginative and, as a result, extraordinarily complementary to the uniquely sombre spectacle on constant display.
The film won an Academy Award, and it should be remembered. It is stunning in black and white; the story is remarkable in its content and direction.
If anyone has ideas about how we fans can possibly revive this movie, we should try to do so. It is worth all the trouble and more just to see it again and again.
"Marketa Lazarová" (1967), so audaciously otherworldly, is a film like that. I've seen it twice now, and slowly it's starting to reveal its riches. The first time around my expectations misled me to approach it as something closer to Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev" (1966), and while there are similarities, the film is so radical it's not that fitting a comparison in my mind.
The backdrop for the film is a profound historical and cultural paradigm shift where Christianity and paganism battle it out. Two opposites, the film can be seen as a poetic exploration of this struggle, and thus as a social document. While interesting, something else speaks to me more. For me the two allegorical forces at play are those of image and sound, and their use in film world, in filmic language. They often go their own ways, images showing us something and the narration swerving to somewhere else altogether, and the complex array of characters and their unorthodox introduction and presentation in the film underline the effect of confusion very powerfully. The overdubbed, echoing dialogue, often out of sync with the image, distracted me on first viewing, but it's unmistakably fitting in the grand scheme of things. Some images are so powerful I can't get them out of my mind (not that I'd want to, mind you!)
And the music! It's the highest compliment I can think of when I say for a film so visually rich that you should not only see it but listen to it. Liska's contribution to the film in some ways contributes to the modest thesis I've been trying to form in so short a space, that is the wonderful interplay of sound and image. Kieslowski's "Trois couleurs: Bleu" (1993) might compare if I wanted to search for something as equally stunning as this.
And I can't write about the film without mentioning the most wonderful sound I've come across in film. It's the convent bell, and one can hear it towards the very beginning, during the revelation and just before the intertitles, I think, and I think it's repeated at least once later on.
All in all, what an experience. We're lucky to have two Blu-rays of the film, the first a Czech Region B, the second a Criterion Region A release. The first one does have English subtitles.
Unlike most Hollywood 'history', the film does not just put modern people in ancient times, but attempts to reconstruct the society and lifestyle. Very fluid and poetic camera work.
This is not a film for everyone.
In this sense, the religious angst of the medieval man comes from trying to conciliate that ancestral world where carving a blood eagle on the back of a fallen chieftain pleased the gods, with the new ideas of perceiving it, where sins had to be atoned for.
Here we get the tumultuous chronicle of this, the writing of the middle part of history.
We get baroque, medieval art, steeped in religious terror and ancestral guilt. Chances are there's a slew of medieval films out there, but probably not one that is as pungent, with a single exception. We encounter this cruel, pitiless hell on earth where life is meaningless and crazed gods roaming it exact terrible, ironic tolls on the human soul, ten years later in Diabel, by the hand of a certified madman this time.
Spiritually I couldn't be farther apart from this godless vision of tortured human beings, essentially Christian. But as an experience to dwell upon and inhabit, the film offers no quarter. It's a better Valhalla Rising, thirty years before.
What new frameworks here though, how best to experience the torture of the medieval man? The director finds the answer in the Czech New Wave.
The intertitle that opens this delineates what follows as a saga, an epic story of murder and intrigue. The masterstroke here lies in how this saga is told, in fragmenting it from a linear notion where time is a succession (which is the artifice of history) and presenting us with those fragments as a vivid experience of a life bled for and anguished. Which is to say, Marketa Lazarova is not the history of what transpired but the memory of it, which is then arranged into a story.
The camera then sees inside this story deeper than any bard did. And what it sees is that these passions and sufferings are not linear, therefore building up to something or anticipated to come to an end that would justify the pain, but an exponential cycle turning indifferently and without pattern.
Yet here is where the film falters. Having broken this up, the film shies away from the opportunity to look directly at what hides behind it, if anything, and insists we read this as a rhapsody where it's not impossible to consider the degenerate as cruel, flawed heroes who defied the king's rule. Bombastic music swells up in crescendos now and then to remind us that all this is horrible, but fundamentally tragic.
This may be a quibble however. It's a harrowing experience watching these men, small and insignificant at the face of violence, struggle with a pain and madness immemorial, that predates their existence. Omens of skaldic doom abound here, black crows in the bony branches of trees. Whatever they signify or not, whether the gods cackle at all this or are indifferently absent, these sights curdle the blood.
The thing that spoilt the film for me was the way that the rape of the titular female character was handled. It was not the rape scene itself that bothered me, but the fact that the perpetrator was the lead male character whom we were evidently expected to feel some sympathy for as the film progressed. I also didn't like the fact that the titular female character seemed to promptly fall in love with her rapist for no apparent reason.
It might be that if this element of the plot had been portrayed slightly differently then I wouldn't have had any problem with it but as it stands I found it extremely off-putting. Personally I wouldn't even class this film as controversial, it is just that I think that the aftermath of the rape and the subsequent relationship between the two central characters was depicted in a cack-handed manner.
Although I usually want and expect creators to refrain from transferring present day social mores on to the past, in this particular instance such theoretical considerations didn't obviate my adverse reaction to how the plot proceeded. As I have previously appreciated plenty of controversial content I didn't feel inclined to give this film the benefit of the doubt. It also is fairly obvious that the director has a penchant for gratuitous female nudity. I certainly wouldn't recommend this film to anybody who identified as a feminist.
However there were aspects of this film that I did appreciate and I can fully understand why others would rate it very highly. Chief among these is the verisimilitude of the medieval setting. I enjoyed seeing all the dirt and the mud and all the buildings looked suitably dilapidated. The music helped to create an appropriate atmosphere and the cast and their clothing were similarly well chosen. I also liked the cinematography and the frequent use of unusual and interestingly varied camera positions. Even though I didn't like this film I feel certain that other filmmakers must have been inspired by it and although I'm not aware of any link it reminded me of "A Field in England".
To be honest, not many other contenders spring to mind. And, who voted? As it was on special offer and I am a sucker indeed for that Russian style of gritty monochrome composition and beauty, how could I resist?
I'm on its second play and I'm no nearer following the story. There is undoubtedly one. Am I too overawed by imagery that I could only dream of? (even if I were able to!) Is it the savagery and feel of a certain reality?
I don't know. I can sense, however, an art film made with passion and unbounded imagination. Of folklore, both in a historical sense and a cultural one and of religious rebellion. Like Kurosawa at his best, an immediacy and connection. Yet, it is also dreamlike and distant, with an air of mysticism that I found increasingly confusing. The length of film means that by halfway through I've no idea what is going on, but am still enjoying what I see.
Unfortunately, I have docked a mark for the forced, electronically induced echo on the dialogue that probably is supposed to denote that other worldly strangeness. It seems to seep in and hang about, its constant use here cheapens the effect to being a bit of a pain. Whereas Kurosawa used that SFX so effectively on, say Roshomon, by using just once or twice.
I could see elements of the Brazilian 'Black God, White Devil' and like others have commented, Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' and Tarkov's 'Andrei Rublev'. Maybe some of the black magic in Bergman's late medieval classics, such as 'The Virgin Spring' and 'The Seventh Seal'. But more psychotic, more manic and disturbing than all these put together. Like madness itself, there is a real beauty deeply ingrained amongst the mayhem.
My conclusion would have to be that if you get the chance, go for it. Take it with a large pinch of salt and sprinkle sparingly. None of it is truly horrific or unpalatable to most adults and don't worry if you don't "get it". Be slightly proud and immodest that you've found a tarnished gem that hardly anyone else will have seen or are ever likely to.
However, this film has little to recommend it. I will say that the camera work is stellar and the cinematography is sometimes stunning. But those aspects alone are not enough.
To simplify, the story is about a lot people walking through bleak landscapes and giving long allegorical speeches about honor and sin.
The narrative lacks clarity and it often feels like the sound was added after filming. That might be okay if it were not so noticeable. Much of the dialogue feels like it was added even though it was not voiced by an actor. If this effect is just a stylistic approach, it did not feel impressive, but distracting.
Much of the music is provided by choral groups voicing wordless shifting tones. That sometimes fits the story, which centers on the intersection of Christian symbolism and pagan myth, yielding a stew of pseudo-meaningful babble. The evolution of man-made mythologies and its effects on different ways to kill one's neighbors has limited appeal. The dialogue is dotted with curses and prayers, showing the similarities between these superstitious incantations.
Some viewers may find the film wordy. Others may enjoy the verbiage. But in the balance, this is an ambitious film with a murky final cut.
Although I am not a very knowledgeable person on Czech film, I have seen a few and am particularly a fan of what is known as the "New Wave". The Czechs seem to have had a brief period of being more strange and experimental than anyone else in the world, taking Luis Bunuel and blowing him away.
This is not one of those films, but I can see why many regard it as the greatest in Czech history. First of all, it is epic, which always draws in critics. But also, the beautiful cinematography is amazing, and the vocal (perhaps choral?) music is perfect to set the stage. Indeed, the music alone makes this film larger than life.
Maybe the writer and the director of this mess also did not wear any protection for their heads in the midst of winter as much as the players in this film did and with heads full of headache they sat about to do this film. That's how it looks.
I had to rewind my DVD a couple of times because I frequently fell asleep over this stinker. But to no avail - I fell asleep again.
Even when I read the reviews and found out what this film was all about and found that my guesses had been correct - this did not help very much.
The message of this film seems to be that mankind is bad and deserving of all misery bestowed to it. I think that filmmakers like this are bad and UNFORTUNATELY they are not bestowed what they deserve and are instead praised in this stink of a society.