Thomas Hobbes famously described man’s lot in life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That seems like an apt way to describe Frantisek Vlácil’s Marketa Lazarová, a Czech historical epic screening at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 28 at Pacific Film Archive as part of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival – though I’d be inclined to add a few adjectives of my own, including ‘cold’, ‘dark’, and ‘claustrophobic.’
Though produced at the height of the Czechoslovak New Wave, 1967’s Marketa Lazarová shares little in common with such brash and bright contemporary features as Horí, má panenko (The Fireman’s Ball, 1967) and Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966). Eschewing social commentary and 60s trappings, it’s a black-and-white love letter to the grim, depressing (two more adjectives!) Middle Ages. You can safely leave your popcorn at home for this one (which is just as well, as I don’t believe PFA allows food or drink in their auditorium).
Having cut his cinematic teeth in the 1950s working in the Czech Army Film Unit, director Vlácil (born 1924) was perhaps a little too old for the New Wave. Nonetheless, Marketa Lazarová is far from a stodgy mock Hollywood epic, its off-kilter narrative structure and proto-psychedelic cinematography anticipating some of the cinematic freakouts to come, including Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969), and Franco Zeffirelli’s Zabriskie Point (1970).
Based on a novel by Vladislav Vancura – who had died at the hands of the Gestapo in 1942 – Marketa Lazarová brutally recreates 13th-century life in all its glorious squalor. The film, for which John Waters’ Odorama came 15 years too late, is the story of two feuding families: the Lazars, a clan aspiring to nobility by cozying up with invading Saxons; and the Kozliks, bandits unwilling to bend the knee to imperial invaders or overlords of any stripe.
Marketa Lazarová (Magda Vásáryová, later to lose out to Meryl Streep for the lead role in Sophie’s Choice), daughter of clan patriarch Lazar (Michal Kozuch), witnesses the savage beating of Mikolas Kozlik (Frantisek Velecký) at the hands of her father and his henchmen. In response, the pagan Kozliks kidnap the Christian Markéta (did I forget to mention she’s in the process of becoming a nun?), and Mikolas rapes her. Needless to say, this doesn’t exactly still the waters, and soon the situation spirals into open warfare.
Shot over the course of two years (or at least, two rather snowy winters), Marketa Lazarová tells a small story on a grand scale, the Kozlik’s and Lazar’s competing religions and ideologies perhaps (but not necessarily) representing the two sides then fighting the Cold War. Though shot in 2.35:1 ratio – the traditional ratio of the big screen blockbuster – the film was shot in black and white, underscoring its atmosphere of chill discomfort. Adding to the sense of dread is Zdenek Liska’s eerie score, which blends elements of traditional church music with the spare percussive trickery of Toru Takemitsu.
Comparable to Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Andrei Rublev (1966) and perhaps Ingmar Bergman’s Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring, 1960), Marketa Lazarová remains unavailable in any format on Region 1 home video, though this situation will be rectified by The Criterion Collection in June. Until then, this screening represents a rare opportunity for Bay Area film fans to see the film voted Best Czech Film — ever! — by that country’s film critics.
Footnote: Marketa Lazarová also features a bouncing sheep’s head and a marriage in which the groom is a corpse. You’ve been warned.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.
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