REVIEW: DVD Release: Marketa Lazarova

Film: Marketa Lazarova
Release date: 3rd December 2007
Certificate: 15
Running time: 173 mins
Director: Frantisek Vlacil
Starring: Josef Kemr, Frantisek Velecky, Magda Vasaryova, Vladimir Mensik, Zdenek Kryzanek
Genre: Drama
Studio: Second Run
Format: DVD
Country: Czechoslovakia

Voted the best Czech film of all time by a survey of critics in 1998, Frantisek Vlacil’s 13th century historical epic Marketa Lazarova remains an unfairly neglected film in this country, although it was reissued in 2007 by Second Run.

Adapted from Vladislav Vancura’s 1931 novel, the film is divided into two major sections: Straba (Straba the Werewolf) and Beránek Bozi (The Holy Lamb/Agnus Dei). In Straba, we are introduced to the two Kozlik brothers, Mikolas and Adam, as they launch a savage attack on a Saxon count and his retinue. In the hope of ransom, Mikolas kidnaps Kristian, the young son of the Saxon count, but succeeds only in bringing down the wrath of royal authority and the displeasure of his own father. Old Kozlik, responding to a royal edict calling for the pursuit of his clan, orders Mikolas to enlist Lazar, head of a rival bandit clan, in setting an ambush for the commander of the king’s army. Instead, Mikolas is attacked and left for dead by Lazar’s simple-minded kinsfolk. The Kozlik sons soon return to claim their revenge, abducting Lazar’s daughter Marketa and leaving her father nailed to the gates of his burning fortress. At a secret woodland hideout, Marketa is raped by Mikolas.

In Beranek Bozi, the introduction of the wandering monk Bernard helps to tie the increasingly diverse plot elements together, which include the death of Adam at the hands of the king’s troops, and a horrific battle with the Kozliks that ends with young Kristian going insane.

In the final section, the plot begins to come more sharply into focus as the relationship between Marketa and Mikolas grows into one of love, and the net begins to finally draw in around the Kozlik clan…

The most immediately striking aspect of Marketa Lazarova is the way in which it immerses us into its world with an intensity that is almost overwhelming. Vlacil’s dedication to the historical mise-en-scène, and the manner in which it transports the viewer into a world so remote from our own, both temporally and spiritually, is quite staggering. The intensive period of preparation and research that preceded the shooting undoubtedly accounts for much of the film’s veracity to the era. Vlacil relocated his cast and film crew to the Sumava forest for two years, where they were put to constructing the various sets using traditional methods and implements. He also drew on anthropological studies, dressed his cast in authentic clothes, and had them speak in the dialects of the era. For a film emanating from the Czechoslovakia of 1967, it is remarkably untainted by the politics of its own time, occupying a space as far removed from social realist propaganda as it does from the romanticism of the Hollywood historical epic.

The world of Marketa Lazarova is one we are not so much invited, as thrust into. At no point does the director invite us to see this world in any other way than through the eyes, beliefs, and feelings of the film’s characters. Vlacil often uses the viewpoints of relatively minor characters, such as Bernard or Kozlik’s feral children, to give the story a grounded point-of-view perspective. The technique is reinforced by the visual motif of peering eyes, watching the fearful events unfold before them.

From a cinematography standpoint, this provides a chance to slip in a lot of unusual compositions. Obstructions (an overhanging branch, swaying marsh reeds, marching soldiers) force the viewer into peering through and around objects much like the characters. The camera is constantly in motion as it stalks the movements of the characters, and yet the composition never appears to be anything other than meticulously planned.

Much of the apparent difficulty of the film arises from the unconventional presentation of the narrative. The relatively simple tale is subject to constant changes in perspective, vertiginous dislocations of point-of-view constantly arising out of moments of memory and clairvoyance. Such complexity in the film’s basic structure is not mere wilful artfulness, but intrinsically linked to Vlacil’s steadfast refusal to have this world judged by contemporary standards, to allow the projection of the future present onto the past. The brutality of Mikolas only seems less extreme in the context of the escalating violence of the story. Alexandra instigates an incestuous relationship with her own brother before moving on to young Kristian. Marketa, initially raped by Mikolas, eventually falls deeply in love with him, and weds him on his deathbed. At no point is judgement allocated by the director or narrator, no matter how foreign their actions may appear to modern audiences. The initially alienating techniques employed by Vlacil paradoxically work to draws us further in, as the fractured viewpoints coalesce or contrast, deepening our understanding of the events unfolding before us, and allowing us to identify and empathise with the characters.

It is testament to the strength of Vlacil’s vision that despite its extended period of preparation and shooting, the film possesses the intensity of an almost instantaneous inspiration. Despite the variety and complexity of the film’s visual and narrative technique, Marketa Lazarova plays as a seamless whole. A strong coherent art direction works to hold the piece together – from the poetic menagerie of animal images (the raven, the snake, the deer, the lamb; representing the hunter and the hunted) to the thematically linked costumes (the fur-covered armour and wolf-eared hood of the lupine Old Kozlik, and the woolly white snood that frames the face of the lamb-like Marketa as she returns home from the convent). A highly elliptical and fractured narrative is held together by the painterly beauty of the cinematography, and the uniform excellence of the acting. Special mention must go here to the young Magda Vasaryova’s utterly convincing portrayal of Marketa’s passage from child-like naivety to steely fatalism, as well as to the appropriately ferocious performance of Josef Kemr as Old Kozlik, all animalistic violence interspersed with insane hyena-like cackles.

Admittedly a difficult work, Marketa Lazarova nevertheless deserves to rank alongside the great masterpieces of 20th century cinema. It is film that anyone with an interest in world cinema should be at pains to track down and deserves to be experienced by all who relish a challenging, even genuinely mind altering experience. GJK

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