Marketa Lazarová: Cinephiles will get their rocks off to Vláčil’s Bohemian rhapsody

There’s a little seen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.

Marketa Lazarová (1967)

Directed by: František Vláčil
Starring: Magda Vášáryová, František Velecký, Josef Kemr

Director František Vláčil spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship. Few films also match Marketa Lazarová‘s dazzling visuals with such authentic production values, so while the virtuosity of Vláčil’s film making often distracts from the story, the credibility of its setting is never in doubt.

Based on a novel by Vladislav Vančura, which in turn was based on an ancient Czech legend, the film declares itself a “Rhapsody” on the title card. This might seem a little precious, but Vláčil is a director who freely admits to valuing visuals over story, and by dispensing with most convential narrative techniques creates a film that is both lyrical and rhapsodic. It is perhaps best enjoyed if you can forget the story and surrender to it as a purely sensory experience.

The fragmented plot, which flitters and swoops from one timeline and perspective to the next, follows a feudal clan about their business of pillaging, murdering, robbing and raping.

The clan, headed by the fierce Kozlík (Josef Kemr), makes the mistake of ambushing a caravan belonging to a close ally of the king. The king dispatches a force to capture the unruly patriach for execution, and the band flee deeper into the woods. Not before paying a visit to neighbouring Lazar. After another violent exchange, elder brother Mikoláš (František Velecký) kidnaps the man’s daughter Marketa, drags her off to their compound and rapes her. She later falls in love with him as the king’s forces close in.

marketa lazarovaThe story is difficult to follow, since Vláčil is happy to parachute the viewer into this violent, brutal world and leave them helpless, to experience the film on a visceral level. While many Czech classics are cosy, bittersweet and parochial, Marketa Lazarová is a wild and capricious epic, the unremitting grimness contrasting with Bedřich Baťka’s fluid camerawork, which produces sequences and images of almost hallucinatory beauty.

Shot in lucid black and white, the film has a timeless feel – it could have been shot a hundred years ago or yesterday. While its most obvious contemporary comparison is Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, the film’s centrepiece, a siege on Kozlík’s squalid hill fort, recalls the chaos of the Seven Samurai‘s last stand, or even the do-or-die D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan.

Magda Vášáryová’s eponymous Marketa acts as an audience surrogate amid all this medieval mayhem, although has surprisingly little screen time. While the bulk of the film focusses on Kozlík, Mikoláš and several other characters, it is Marketa’s beauty haunts the film, like Anne Lambert in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Ultimately, after all the men around her have behaved like cavemen, barely better than the wild beasts that roam the land, it is Marketa who walks away with her head held high.

The nagging doubt I have about Marketa Lazarová is whether it actually amounts to much beyond its technical bravura. The story seems too buried in history and entranced by its own skill to resonate on any  emotional level. That said, cinephiles should jump at the chance to catch it on the big screen.

While I am in no doubt that Marketa Lazarová is a mighty achievement, bearing favourable comparison to other heavyweights of world cinema, my recommendation comes with a caution. I don’t necessarily think that a casual movie goer would enjoy it – some might find it too long, oblique, humourless and “arty” to hold their attention. Film buffs will almost certainly fill their boots.

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The DVD Marketa Lazarová with English subtitles can be obtained online and at news stands.

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