Tag Archives: Czechoslovachian

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MARKETA LAZAROVÁ (1967)

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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.

Still from Marketa Lazarova (1967)

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 Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MARKETA LAZAROVÁ (1967)

CAPSULE: VISITORS FROM THE ARKANA GALAXY (1981)

 Gosti iz galaksije; AKA Visitors from the Galaxy

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DIRECTED BY: Dusan Vukotic

FEATURING: Zarko Potocnjak, Ksenia Prohaska, Lucie Zulová

PLOT: An aspiring science fiction writer finds he has materialized the aliens from his long-gestating novel, including a space monster.

Still from Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy (1981)

COMMENTS: Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy is a curious artifact from nowhere. Or at least, from nowhere that exists anymore: a co-production between Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, two countries that have since splintered into bits, produced under a vanished political schema.

So perhaps its not entirely surprising that Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy is like a movie that might have been itself created by aliens. The conditions that produced it—Iron Curtain envy of Western science fiction spectacles like Star Wars, and a desire to put their own Slavic spin on the genre—evaporated decades ago. But with its mishmash of tones and the reckless absurdity of its plotting, Arkana was probably still an oddball even in its own day. Let’s examine the evidence….

It begins as a sort of sitcom, sans the laughs. Robert is an aspiring science fiction author who plots endlessly, dictating into his tape recorder while wearing a toy cosmonaut helmet. His wife Biba feels neglected, and she and his relatively wacky neighbors—a photographer, his overbearing mother, and their furball dog—constantly interrupt his attempts to work. He’s also obliged to spend time with Biba’s similarly wacky family, including a headphone-wearing pop-music obsessed little sister-in-law and a blind accordion playing grandpa. It’s not funny, but the setup does establish a tone as a gentle, G-rated comedy before the first plot development: the characters from Robert’s long-gestating novel, a female android named Andra (who looks a little like a sexy C3PO) and two blond space children, contact their author via tape recorder. You see, from childhood Robert has been able to materialize the things he imagines in his mind, an ability which barely surprises his physician (who diagnoses him with “tellurgy” after Robert explains how, as an infant, he gave his widowed father big boobs so he could breastfeed to his heart’s content).

From that revelation onward, Arkana accelerates the crazy: villagers decide the safest way to approach the aliens is for everyone to approach them in the nude. Robert and Andra engage in some weird android/human sex stuff in front of psychedelic green screens. A space brat uses his eye lasers to turns Biba into a pocket-sized metal cube, a development which does not seem to amaze or upset anyone as much as it probably should. Finally, the large-snouted, slithery-tongued, slime-and-flame-spewing alien space monster (designed by none other than Jan Svankmajer!) shows up at Biba’s family dinner and massacres most of the party while grandpa plays the accordion!

So there it is: a light, kid-friendly sci-fi satire with lots of gratuitous nudity and decapitated heads thrown into soup bowls. The effects are simple but abundant, with lots of glowing blue space balls and fingers shooting lime-green laser beams, scored to synthesizer noises the subtitle track helpfully describes as “science fiction sounds.” They resemble American TV shows of the period like “Battlestar Galactica” or “Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century.”

Despite all of this apparent madness, Arkana is not seriously weird; it’s not serious at all. There are no consequences, since anything bad that happens can be reversed by the push of a robotic panel accompanied by some helpful science fiction sounds. With its mixture of innocence, spectacle, and a little taste of naughtiness, it seems aimed at teenage boys: something that, with a little cultural translation, could have fit into the catalogues American B-movie outfits of the period like ‘s New World Pictures or ‘s Full Moon Pictures. Instead, it plays like a sci-fi sitcom made by actual aliens.

Deaf Crocodile’s 2023 Blu-ray release includes a commentary track by Samm Deighan and five fairly surreal animated shorts from director : Dusan Vukotic, including “Surogat,” which won the Short Animated Film Oscar in 1962.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The humor is ‘Absurdist Sitcom Weird’:  the people are cute and likable, and the emphasis remains on gentle Sci-fi satire.”–Glenn Erickson, Trailers from Hell (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Devon, who called it “a bizarro sci-fi comedy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)