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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.