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DIRECTED BY: Frantisek Vlácil
FEATURING: Frantisek Velecký, Magda Vásáryová, Ivan Palúch, Josef Kemr, Michal Kozuch, Pavla Polaskova
PLOT: In the early Middle Ages, a pair of brothers rob a caravan under protection of the King, setting off a chain of events that eventually leads to the kidnapping of Marketa, a virgin pledged to the convent.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Dreamy pagan sequences adorn a stylized and hallucinatory landscape in Vlácil’s stark medieval epic.
COMMENTS: Although Marketa Lazarová is almost universally praised, everyone remarks on its confusing narrative. The film, which begins with a highway robbery and kidnapping, starts off with a lack of context, and the remainder of the story is fragmented, peppered with abrupt changes of scene, and with dreams, visions, and flashbacks which are sometimes impressionistic, sometimes indistinguishable from reality. The plot elements are comprehensible—a petty noble goes too far and angers the king, a virtuous maiden is snatched from her home—-but the main problem is keeping track of who is who, and where their loyalties lie. If you are prepared for confusion, you can soldier through it and the parties should sort themselves out within an hour or so. But if you would like some guidance, I’ll start this review with a short overview of the major players to get you oriented.
Despite providing the film’s title, Marketa Lazarová herself is not a prominent character until the film’s second half. The story atually centers on her eventual abductor, Mikoláš, a lanky and handsome man in a tight beard. Mikoláš’ brother and partner in banditry, Adam, is easily identified because he has only one arm (although watch out for flashbacks where he has two). Although they behave like highwaymen, Mikoláš and Adam are pseudo-nobles, the sons of Kozlík, a bald and bearded feudal yeoman who rules the walled town of Roháček. Long-haired temptress Alexandra, a brunette contrast to Marketa’s blond innocence, is their sister. In the first chapter the brothers kidnap Kristián, a German youth of noble blood, intending to ransom him. Meanwhile, Lord Lazar rules Obořiště, Roháček’s rival village; he is Marketa’s doting father. Mikoláš spares Lazar after catching him scavenging the wreckage of the caravan the Kozlík clan intends to loot, but later regrets his mercy when Lazar refuses to provide assistance against the king. In revenge, Mikoláš kidnaps the virginal Marketa, whom the (relatively) pious Lazar has pledged to the nunnery. The relentless Captain “Beer,” the king’s military representative in the region, is easily distinguished by his bushy mustache. These are the major players; many minor characters enter and leave, but if you can keep these straight, you should be able to navigate the main thrust of the tale—though details are often elusive.
The narrative confusion matters less because the film is so beautiful. The black and white vistas show off the wintry Bohemian countryside, bare interiors where scar-faced men in furs and chainmail scheme by torchlight, and the marble arches of the pristine convent chapel. Vlácil’s compositions tend towards the symbolic and the symmetrical, sometimes suggesting a monochrome. Battle scenes muster dozens of combatants on each side and are competent, if not the film’s highlight. While the visuals are delightful, Marketa Lazarová is perhaps even more outstanding in its sound design, fronted by Zdeněk Liška’s eerie, chant-and-percussion laden score. Dialogue is often sparse—most of the major players are strong silent types—and a mix of Liška’s choirs with ambient sounds frequently dominate scenes. When dialogue does occur, the speaker is sometimes off-camera, with heavy echo applied, so that it feels like listening to an internal monologue. (There is also an omniscient narrator who chimes in at chapter breaks and who, at one point, carries on a strangely accusatory dialogue with a minor character). Combined with the generally fractured storytelling style, the overall effect is of a troubled dream after eating too many turkey legs at a renaissance faire.
Marketa Lazarová is an unsentimental and unsanitized portrayal of Europe’s middle ages. There are no knights in gleaming armor, only dirt and banditry. The setting is approximately the same time period explored (in a cheekier and more pagan-forward manner) in 2017’s November; I would be surprised if had not seen Lazarová. Reviewers usually describe the movie as portraying the historical struggle between paganism and Christianity, although here “pagan” is mostly as a charge nobles use to undermine rivals’ reputations rather than a religious reality. Fertility dolls and animal skulls hung on a tree as a prelude to a chicken blood sex ritual seen in dream/flashback are one of the few signs of lingering paganism in Roháček. The conflict is more between enlightened spirituality—represented by the convent and by a wandering shepherd/priest—as contrasted with an immature, often hypocritical folk-Christianity obsessed with appeasing a Supreme Deity who actively distributes blessings and curses. This is a lot to chew on, before even addressing the problematic love affair at the center of the story.
Christendom is a surprising historical subject for a film produced in Czechoslovakia’s Communist era, but Marketa did flow from the New Wave period of relaxed censorship. Czech audiences followed the plot better and responded even more enthusiastically than the rest of the world: in 1998, a poll of local film critics voted it the greatest movie ever made in the Czech language.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by Sasha, who accurately described it as “a dense, fragmented, often hard-to-follow, always completely gorgeous Czech semi-historical ensemble masterpiece that follows two pagan families during the Christianization of the region.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)