Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review of Marketa Lazarova

“Marketa Lazarova” (1967) is not your friendly neighborhood historical epic. Merchant and Ivory this is not. Nor is this some self-congratulatory cast-of-CG-millions Hollywood spectacle a la “Alexander” or “Troy.” Chivalry and swashbuckling are not on the menu. Nor should you expect to meet any valiant gleaming knights, wizened patriarchal kings, wise-cracking jesters, kindly innkeepers or castle-bound princesses. This is medieval wilderness in all its primitive violence. “Marketa Lazarova” is about putting the darkness back into the Dark Ages.

More specifically, “Marketa Lazarova” is about the desperate struggle for survival amongst the bloody savagery of the 13th century. Bitter cold wraps the hot-tempered villainy, violence and vengeance that plague the land, and even when the snow thaws, there’s little but marshland and roving wolves to look forward to.

[Images: Motes of humanity on the uncaring canvas of nature.]

Kozlik, the scarred and brutish leader of a tightly-packed clan, presides over an insignificant corner of his lord’s uninviting kingdom. After his sons, Mikolas and Adam, massacre a royal caravan and kidnap Kristian, a young bishop, the king sends an army to extinguish the remorseless upstarts. Meanwhile, Mikolas seeks the aid of his neighbor, Lazar, to set up an ambush, but he is repelled by the scheming coward and almost killed. He returns for vengeance, claiming Lazar’s beautiful daughter Marketa for his own rather than allowing her to enter a convent.

[Images (from top to bottom): Kozlik, Mikolas and Marketa.]

Czech director Frantisek Vlacil adapted Vladislav Vancura’s novel to the screen with an unparalleled respect for the era, spitting in the eye of the quaint “costume dramas” that had come before. Vlacil took his cast into the woods, where they spent two years building their sets without modern tools, hunting for food and learning to live by their most primitive instincts. Composer Zdenek Liska created his own instruments from local natural resources and put together an overwhelming score that relies heavily on vocally chilling chants and hymns.

The characters speak in the ragged stripped-down dialect of the time (which Vlacil painstakingly researched) with the minimal dialogue often strangely displaced or overtaken by the eerie emptiness of the terrain (stretched wide like an ominous tapestry by the scope ratio). Most of the main roles are played with the stoic muteness of predator and prey. The two most talkative characters are unreliable and/or insane: Katerina, an ancient witch whose prophecies are more the product of bitterness and senility than foreknowledge or insight, and Bernard a wandering shepherd-monk who mutters prayer-raving and generally spies on the escalating action from the outside.

Bernard may be the closest thing to comic relief, though probably not in the way that involves laughter. At one point the narrator, briefly addressing him directly as the voice of god, chastises him for living in sin with his lonely lamb. Even in his deepest misery, cradling the severed head of his woolen companion only to trip and send it bouncing down a hillside, there is a pinch of absurd humor. His luckless lot is inextricably tied to the warring factions of the swampy hinterlands, though he is rarely directly involved.

[Image: Bernard hugging his sheep’s head outside of Kozlik’s stockade.]

Vlacil uses Bernard and other (usually minor) characters to give the story a grounded POV perspective. The fragmented, unprivileged viewpoints provide an alternative to the traditional history styles of “legendary tale” omniscience or hero-driven character access. This technique is reinforced by the visual motif of peering eyes, watching the tragedy with apprehension and fear. The gaze is less the curiosity of the voyeur than the wariness of the hunter. Vlacil wants us to participate in the unmediated impulses of the eyes and ears, without eloquence or fanfare.

[Images: Peering eyes in the ocean of underbrush.]
From a cinematography standpoint, this provides a chance to slip in a lot of unusual compositions. For instance, there are more obstructions in front of Vlacil’s camera than we are used to, with the viewers forced into peaking through and around objects much like the characters. We stalk their movements, moving in jerky, frantic bursts only to come to rest on expertly framed images that were awaiting us all the time.

At different times Vlacil’s visuals recall so many other great directors (Kurosawa’s textures, Bergman’s existential mysticism, Brynych’s unstable perfectionism, Parajanov’s spiritual surrealism, Tarkovsky’s heavy lyricism, Welles’s depth and density) that I’m paradoxically convinced of his essential distinctiveness. The stunning breath and scope of his imagery may benefit from a wealth of influences, but to deploy them so majestically within a story so devoid of grandeur is a balancing act no other auteur has achieved.

[Images: Despite the variety and complexity of Vlacil’s visual playbook, the film has a seamless wholeness unlike anything in today’s hip borrow-anything post-modernism.]

I think part of Vlacil’s effectiveness comes from his ability to break down our conventional ideas of conceiving beauty and imagining the past. Most directors learn to find the beauty in a subject (a landscape, face, etc.) by idealizing it from a human perspective, but Vlacil instead brings out the traces of nature’s impact: the overgrowth, grit and scars. By refusing to elevate man above nature, he consigns his characters to be overwhelmed by their environment. They must fight tooth and nail for dominance, against the elements and each other.

The female characters, Alexandra (Mikolas’s sister) and Marketa, present versions of romance and religion utterly foreign to modern audiences. Alexandra chooses her lovers with silent unflinching conviction and no regard for social conventions: her brother and the captured bishop are not off limits. Marketa, initially raped by Mikolas after he kills her father, eventually falls deeply in love with him and weds him on his deathbed. These relationships are not condemned by the narrator or director. Neither are Alexandra’s wild pagan rites or Marketa’s coldly pious Christianity shown any favoritism one way or the other. Vacliv declines to project the future onto the past, to judge their world with hindsight.

The strangeness of seeing the past unfettered by our usual assumptions is rather disorientating. In fact, my one main problem* with “Marketa Lazarova” was that I found it so confusing on first viewing. It has a steep learning curve, made especially difficult by the ensemble cast and shuffled editing. Jumps into the past and future upset the timeline, changing POVs transfer our perspective and dreams and visions intrude upon reality. The chapter intertitles occasionally help, laying out the main events that are about to occur, but they often seem to taunt us with misdirection and irrelevancies. I found a second viewing was required to fit everything into place and I highly recommend reading a plot summary directly before your first time.

Despite its inaccessibility, few who find a path into its world would question “Marketa Lazarova’s” status as a daring masterpiece. A 1998 poll in the Czech Republic named it as the greatest Czech film ever made, though it remains virtually unknown in the states (where it has never aired on TV and is not available on any format). Second Run distributes the DVD for the UK market (region-free PAL), and I recommend anyone with an interest in medieval culture or Czech cinema make arrangements to import it. Check out Kinoblog's excellent review of the film/DVD if you are interested.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

*I can actually think of another non-negligible flaw with the film: the title. I’m unconvinced that Marketa’s character occupies the central core of the story in terms of either plot or theme, and it does nothing to draw in the uninitiated.

8 comments:

Mad Dog said...

Looks beautiful, but sounds like a slog.

Czech do what Hollywouldn't.

Walrus said...

Yeah. The 162 minute run-time is also not going to get too many people excited. I wouldn't exactly call it boring, though, given the amount of wolf chases, savage beatings, pagan rites, vengeance kills and brutal rapings. Still, I think if I were a babysitter I could use this to threaten hyperactive children for more reasons than one.

"Oh, you want to stay up past your bedtime, tonight? How about we watch spend the time watching... MARKETA LAZAROVA!!!"

Anonymous said...

There are more problems here than the title. The heavy-handed use of the almost-continuous music and the visual metaphors make the film pretentious. The use of humor is out of place (since it happens only in a couple of random scenes in the second part). By the end, the scenes are too long and drawn out. This is a bad imitation of the great Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky. Definitely not the best Czech film ever, doesn't even come close.

mark said...

"Anonymous" is a sour idiot. Try making a film, wanker. And try making a life, before spewing your pissy snarks. This film is a time-machine into a culture and era that is too often showered and primped and combed by less authentic filmies. It is not just a great Czech film, it is a great world treasure. I hope more filmmakers learn its recipe and follow suit. A refreshing delight, and a journey I was thrilled to be taken on, even if it took me several viewings to take it all in. Bravo, bravo.

Walrus said...

mark,

I couldn't agree with you more. I was sorely tempted to respond to "anonymous" with an extended rebuttal, but decided it was not worth my time. I'm a huge fan of Tarkovsky myself, which would make me give him the benefit of the doubt, but if a person can't appreciate Marketa Lazarova there's just something fundamentally wrong with them. Anyway, thank you for making me very happy by waltzing in and saying exactly what I was thinking :)

Also, make sure to check out Vlacil's other films. Valley of the Bees and The White Dove are both excellent.

Anonymous said...

(Tschonni) Thanks for your review! But Miklas doesn't kill Lazar - remember that near the end of the film Marketa returns to her father and he rejects her.
I like your info about the intense preparations Vlacil put his actors through. It makes me wonder - did Herzog learn anything from this film?

Anonymous said...

Marketa's father was not killed, merely nailed to the gates

Anonymous said...

Couldn't get past the first 20 minutes. One man's (or country's) "masterpiece" is another's waste of time.