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Milos Stehlik reviews the classic Czech film 'Marketa Lazarova'

The title of the Czech film Marketa Lazarova is the name of one of its main protagonists. Marketa is the naive and beautiful daughter of Lazar, a nobleman who lives in the fort of Oboriste.  The setting is the early medieval age, on the cusp of Christianity and paganism. The Lazars' great enemy is the Kozlik family. The elder Kozlik has eight sons and seven daughters. They, like the Lazars, survive by stealing. Their seat of power is a wood-entrenched fort named Rohacek. Both the Lazars and the Kozliks live in what we would today consider is a raw, remote wilderness.

The Kozliks and Lazars have a common interest in combining forces against those of the King, but the passions of individual family members create conflict between them. The Kozliks capture the imperial knight Kristian, and a pagan-worshipping Kozlik daughter takes him as her lover. Later, Kozlik's son Mikolas brings Marketa Lazarova to their fort against his father's wishes and she gets pregnant. Marketa's father Lazar rejects her when she tries to return home and she becomes a nun.

This vastly over-simplified plot summary doesn’t capture the film’s intricate flashbacks, battles and twisted relationships, and it understates the greatness of Marketa Lazarova as a film. It’s not about the plot of the film, it’s about the art of the film.

Marketa Lazarova, made in 1967, is based on a 1931 novel by Vladislav Vancura, a 20th century Czech writer who was executed by the Gestapo during World War II. The novel itself is written in archaic Czech, in an attempt to capture some of the historical essence. But at the same time, it is highly experimental, using metaphors, characters who comment on the action, and rapid time shifts.

What is amazing about Frantisek Vlacil's film adaptation of the novel is that Vlacil creates a film of epic proportions like we've never seen before. It captures the brutality, cruelty and passion of the time that it depicts - and yet retains the psychological complexity, torn loyalties and passions of its characters.

Filmed under extremely difficult conditions, with much of the action in deep snow or mud, Vlacil uses the stark black and white images as visual elements of shocking power, with shots often edited in dissonant, even disturbing ways. The films of Sergei Eisenstein, like Alexander Nevsky, are our only historical reference. Vlacil creates a visual dynamic of such force that your senses are simply overwhelmed by their visceral reality.

Two of Vlacil's collaborators are rarely credited in discussions of the film -- the brilliant cinematographer Bedrich Batka, and the composer, Zdenek Liska, whose score combines an orchestral dissonance with a choral polyphony. The combined effect is that though Marketa Lazarova is rooted in the medieval age, it is distinctively modern.

The action of the film is sometimes hard to follow and made more difficult by poor subtitles which are sometimes unreadable. You just have to go for the visual flow. But what a torrent of images!

One reason why Marketa Lazarova is often inadequately described is that language fails to represent the film’s physicality, which Vlacil captured in action that is both brutal and sublime, which shifts from harsh, almost primal intimacy to something that is a majestic elegy - a spirituality that is both tangible and cruel. Few filmmakers have ever achieved anything that comes close.

Vlacil was an interesting and accomplished filmmaker of a generation older than the Czech New Wave of the 1960s. In a poll, Marketa Lazarova was voted the number one Czech Film of all time. By all accounts, the shooting process was as brutal on the crew and actors as some of the scenes they were asked to depict. In the bitter winter, they did one take after another, with minimum protection against the cold. Magda Vasaryova, whose performance is iconic as Marketa Lazarova, is today a member of parliament in Slovakia.

Marketa Lazarova, the film, stands as unique in the history of world cinema. It fuses together that most impossible of artistic achievements -- beauty and terror.


Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multi-media, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ. His reviews air on Fridays.


Trailer for Marketa Lazarova


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