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Marketa Lazarova based on a novel by Vladislav Vančura, follows the rivalry between two warring clans, the Kozlíks and the Lazars, and the growing romantic bond between Mikolas Kozlík and Marketa Lazarova.

The film works more like a medieval parable than anything else and a somewhat elliptical but beautifully and unforgettably cinematic one at that. If you’ve seen this film categorized as a war film, which in some places it seems to be, don’t expect courageous knights or pretty princesses. The entire film is set in medieval wilderness captures in cinemascope with all its primitive savagery on display. Makes it abundantly clear, why they called it the dark ages. And yet, I’m not entirely certain that the film’s view of these people is unsympathetic or filled with contempt. Rather, I got the impression that it almost respects the way the lives of these people seem closer to the laws of nature than the ones decreed by civilization and modernity.

In a quote from an interview with Vlacíl taken from Antonín J. Liehm’s book, Closely Watched Films, the filmmaker says

I am interested in period figures who lived, thought, acted, had feelings, at a certain time in history — in contrast to costume films, where I always get the impression that most of the money has been spent on clothes, and sometimes on clothes that don’t always correspond to the period. They need the externals more than the history. On the other hand, what I try to do is to depict the time in a way that the viewer can really fall back that many centuries into the past.
People then were much more instinctive in their actions, and hence much more consistent. If a person made up his mind he was going to do something, he went through with it. The only controlling emotion was fear, and that brought its pressure to bear mainly at night.”

I have to confess also that I found it really hard to follow what was going on for the first 30 minutes or so. In fact, the film seems to almost deny narrative as the primary focus placing emphasis instead on the interplay between characters and on having us focus on the subjective. There are a number of scenes that are dependent on the characters’ actions being observed and reacted to by others. – a narrative strategy that took some getting used to for me. Another challenge (for me anyway) was the narration, which Vlacíl uses in a really interesting way, no doubt, but again took some practice on my part. The narrator sometimes uses stories or monologues and at times, an on-screen character’s dialogues are an exchange with the narrator. In addition, the narration is frequently not really describing the actions on-screen. This all seemed to me to be a deliberate obfuscation of the story, per se. Plus, the film frequently jumps back and forth in time as though it’s a natural movement. And yet, the film has chapter headings as intertitles that are long and often summarize what the next section of the film is about.

I am still struggling with trying to understand Vlacíl’s motives with all of this. Is this to create a more full-fledged picture of that time and that world and perhaps keep the viewer from simply getting into the love story between Mikolas and Marketa? If so, it succeeds because that’s certainly not what most of the film ends up being about even if it’s the spine around which the rest of the film is wrapped. The film really explores the lives of these people; the search for and storage of food for survival during the harsh winters, the maintenance of livestock and the clash between clans as well as faiths (Christianity and paganism in particular, neither of which is shown to be better or worse than the other here).

I also read somewhere that Vančura, the author of the novel, had a rather unconventional style that eschewed narrative cohesion – prose that resembled poetry. So that may have motivated these stylistic choices as well.

The film really relies on its visuals more than anything else to convey information – not a bad thing at all but perhaps as a viewer who’s a lot more used to being spoon-fed information, I’m not certain that I even got all the parallels from this one viewing. For instance, Vlacíl echoes visuals to draw the parallels between man and beast. “Don’t be an animal”, a character exclaims early on and the film contradicts this immediately. For instance, there’s a pig that’s been hung up for slaughter early on and later on in the film, we see a man strung up in almost the same pose, probably awaiting the same fate. There’s another scene where the camera starts off observing Marketa holding on to a dove and then moves to a sex scene where we only see the girl’s body thereby believing it’s Marketa only to realize that it is in fact Alexandra. There are several parallels of this sort between Marketa and Alexandra and by extension to the the relationships between Marketa and Mikolas and Alexandra and Kristian.

One of the most striking scenes in the film is Kristian’s descent into madness.Not only is it filled with striking images, it’s also interesting to me that rather than show images that are simply grotesque, his nightmare re-iterates scenes that we’ve previously seen from other character’s PoV, making the horror of what we’ve seen before all the more palpable.

I apologize for the incoherence of this post. I really struggled with saying anything about the film and have mostly just posed questions and thinking aloud. A few more questions before I end this though.
Did you think of this as a revenge film at all? Also, what do we make of that central love-story? The first time we see Marketa, the screen is flooded with light and she appears almost like an angel or at least a pious virgin. And yet she falls in love with the man who raped her. Is this a testament to the inherent goodness in most humans and the change in Mikolas once he does take up with Marketa? What did you make of the ending where she’s essentially marrying him on his deathbed rather than choosing to don that nun’s habit?

What about all the animals in the film? Surely, the animals are parallels for the human characters?

I guess it’s time I reveal whether or not I liked the film. I liked it a lot and despite finding it challenging from a narrative viewpoint, the stunning visuals and the music (!!) were more than enough to keep me riveted. I do think I need to watch it again though because I think that the way it worked for me primarily is as an abstract set of associations rather than a story, per se. And I’ll admit also that I didn’t really care about the story that much once I realized I wasn’t getting it beyond the very basic stuff. Gorgeous stuff, though and it completely transported me.

Note: This post was the introductory post to an ongoing discussion about the film on a film forum. The barrage of qsns is directed at others participating in said discussion.