Classic Film Club: Marketa Lazarova
Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Frantisek Vlacil's 'Marketa Lazarova'
One doesn’t go into a Czech surrealist medieval politico-religious allegory expecting mindless entertainment, but ‘Marketa Lazarova’ is still astonishingly dense and impenetrable. Set sometime in the 13th century, somewhere in the muddy, unforgiving flatlands of Eastern Europe, the film doesn’t so much tell a story as lay out a series of brutal, interconnected quasi-religious tableau, and leave the audience to join up the dots.
None of which means it isn’t a masterpiece. Voted the greatest ever Czech film by a recent panel, this is one of the most stunningly photographed films ever made, a rhapsody in monochrome. The early scenes of horses wheeling on a snowbound plain as wild wolves stalk the drifts, gradually give way to a dank, dripping spring, and finally a glorious, sunlit, ultimately bloody summer. There are frames here – figures lounging in shady woodland, light filtering through dappled boughs – that stand among the very finest examples of the cinematographer’s art.
The narrative begins with deceptive straightforwardness. A pair of vagabond brothers, Mikolas and Adam, hold up a stagecoach and rob the passengers. But while they’re hunting down the stragglers a band of poor villagers, led by the pitiful lord Lazar, make off with the goods. It’s a riveting sequence, shot in deep snow the black forms of trees, people and animals stand stark against the blinding whiteness. But gradually the story fragments. One of the coach’s passengers – the teenage son of a powerful bishop – survives, and the brothers take him back to their father, clan warlord Kozlik, incurring the wrath of the king, who despatches his army. But these events are never depicted with clarity: characters are often masked or unrecognisable, locations indistinguishable, dialogue oblique.
The film is divided into chapters, each with an explanatory introduction, but these introductions often barely reflect the events in the ensuing chapter. To complicate matters further, Vlacil introduces dream sequences, hallucinatory pagan and Biblical imagery, unannounced flashbacks and sudden temporal shifts. This, for a while, makes ‘Marketa Lazarova’ something of a frustrating experience, leaving its audience simultaneously marvelling at the technical beauty on display and scratching their heads at the introduction of another mud-spattered, indistinguishable, shaven-headed thug.
The introduction of the title character – Lazar’s beautiful teenage daughter, who is kidnapped by Mikolas in fury at the former’s refusal to side with his family against the king – seems to promise a focus for audience attention, but following her abduction Marketa fades quickly into the background, leaving the stage open for myriad, intertangled political and feudal wranglings. But dedicated attention pays off, as the various strands come together in the form of a breathless, brutal battle sequence on a wooded hill. Admittedly, the scene never reaches a conclusion – Vlacil cuts away before the climax, and we learn what happened after the event – but it’s an extraordinary scene, and from there on the film regains some of its drive, as Mikolas plots to rescue his father from jail, and Marketa realises her love for the man who kidnapped and raped her.
In fact, this issue of abduction leading to affection is not nearly so clear cut as it seems: the temptation would be to accuse Vlacil of typical ’60s chauvinism in his depiction of Marketa (a beautiful, winsome, helpless girl who falls for the first man who pays her any attention) but it could just as easily be read as an indictment of medieval (and perhaps modern) attitudes towards women. Marketa never gets any choice in life, first shipped off to an isolated nunnery by the father who can’t afford to feed her, then abducted and humiliated by Mikolas, and finally rejected both by her father and the nuns for having allowed herself to be raped. Her victory at the film’s close is to accept a life of hardship and impending insanity, but at least she gets to keep her freedom.
The film’s depiction of religion is never blunt: Vlacil prefers to let the inherent ironies – the vengeful bishop, the lunatic vagabond priest, the pious citizens living in abject poverty – speak for themselves. His obvious interest in the retreat of pagan culture in the face of Christian dominance is an intriguing one, but never fully explored, except in the form of oblique imagery. But his depiction of the medieval world is, in every other respect, wholly convincing: from costume to locations, Vlacil grasps the physical, spiritual and emotional reality of the time with extraordinary accuracy.
Overall, ‘Marketa Lazarova’ is an intensely powerful work of art, if only for that staggering cinematography. But be warned: this is a grim, intractable, daunting experience, and viewers may feel that the rewards they take away from the film are hard won.
Author: Tom Huddleston
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