Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marketa Lazarová [1967]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing* listing*

Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]

Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by František Vláčil [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* along with František Pavlíček  [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*, based on the novel by the same name [cz.wikip]* by Vladislav Vančura [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [CSFD]*[FDB]*) played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

In 1998 as part of marking the Centenary of Czech language cinema, the film was voted by over 100 Czech film critics as the greatest Czech language film ever made.  In 2011, a digitally restored version, premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (the Czech Republic's premier international film festival).    It was this version with English subtitles that played here at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

That the film received the distinction of being "the greatest Czech Language film ever made" is not without its controversies and caveats:

First, the film is rather unique (for Czech / Czechoslovak cinema) in style.  Released in 1967 almost exactly at the midpoint of Czechoslovakia's Communist Era (1948-1989) and just as a new generation of Czechoslovak film-makers (those of the far more Western-European influenced Czechoslovak "New Wave" [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*) were beginning to come to their own, it would be immediately obvious to viewers/critics that František Vláčil's [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* influences came "from the East," that is, from the epic works of Sergei Eisenstein [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* (Alexander Nevsky [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*, Ivan the Terrible [1944, 1958] [IMDb - Pts 1 - 2] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*) and Vláčil's Russian/Soviet contemporary Andrej Tarkovsky [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* who released Andrej Rublev [1966] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* at about the same time as Vláčil released his film.

Then epic cinema costs money and resources.  Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* was by far the most expensive Czechoslovak film made up to that time and (adjusted to today's currency values) possibly ever.  To make such an investment in a film -- it was filmed over two years with multiple sets with, by legend, the actors even asked to live during the two years as their characters (in frontier-like medieval conditions) -- generally requires that the project have the "appropriate pedigree."  And it did: Vančura [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* on whose book the film was based was a Czech Communist martyr of the Resistance to Nazi Occupation, and Vláčil [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* cut his teeth making films in the 1950s for the Czechoslovak (Communist-era) army.  As such, it would not be entirely inappropriate to put the film (at least initially) in a similar category as the infamous (and also necessarily "state sponsored") late-Nazi era monstrosity Kolberg [1944] [IMDb] [en.wikip].

However, all this admitted, Marketa Lazarová [1967] [IMDb] [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* remains a remarkable and arguably great film.

First, making epic period or even sci-fi drama _inevitably_ costs money.  Just ask James Cameron [IMDb] (Titanic [1997], Avatar [2008]), Steven Spielberg [IMDb] (Saving Private Ryan [1998], Lincoln [2012]) or Peter Jackson [IMDb] (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy [2001, 2002, 2003]).  Would _anyone_ seriously question the artistic validity/value of these films (as well as those of the Russian Soviet-era film-makers mentioned above)?

Further, American viewers will certainly appreciate director Vláčil's [IMDb] [cz.wikip]*[CSFD]*[FDB]* "method-acting-like" insistence that the actors in his film "get into the mindset" of the characters that they were playing to the point of his wanting his actors to _live like the characters that they were playing_ for some time both _before and as they filmed_.  (The Method was based on Russian born Constantin Stanislavki's system of "emotional memory recall" that influenced both Hollywood and Soviet-era film-making preparation).  Since the story of Marketa Lazarová (Vančura's book [cz.wikip]* / Vláčil's film [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*) took place in the still largely lawless/pagan Czech hinter/borderlands at the time that  these lands first entered into recorded history (around the 1300s), IT WAS IMPORTANT TO THE DIRECTOR THAT THE ACTORS COME TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LIVE IN THAT STILL WILD, STILL LAWLESS TERRITORY AT THAT STILL RATHER SAVAGE (MEDIEVAL) TIME.  Hence the need for actors' quite radically imposing preparation.

The story had a further resonance to the Czechs of the time in which it was written (in the decade just before WW II) and later when it was filmed (still only two decades after that War) because the lands in question WERE EXACTLY THOSE WHICH CAME TO CALLED THE GERMAN/CZECH CONTESTED "SUDETENLAND" (and the story actually helps explain WHY the lands came to be settled in the way that they were -- by Germans at behest of the Czech king TO HELP BRING ORDER TO THAT VACANT / LAWLESS TERRITORY).

All this is then to help setup the actual story being told in the film:

It is the story of a (legendary) Marketa Lazarová (played in the film by Magda Vášáryová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) a daughter of a Czech nobleman named Lazar (played by Michal Kožuch [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) who had settled his family in this lawless, borderland region (presumably at the Prague-seated Czech king's behest).  And the region _was_ wild.  In the opening scene, two Czech-robber knights attack a German bishop and his entourage passing through from Prague back to his See in (German) Saxony.

For her part, teenage Marketa is seen growing-up, somewhat naively, in lovely, lush, pond-laden countryside, still somewhat "pagan." (Early in the film, she comes upon an ancient (oak? / linden?) tree still adorned with various pagan fetishes.  Later, she skinny dips in a nearby pond ...).  But she's also very much impressed by the serenity/beauty of a then still "recently constructed" (only "a generation or two in the past") nearby hill-top Convent of nuns.  Indeed, there is a scene in which Lazar is negotiating on behalf of Marketa the dowry price for her eventual entry into the Convent, which she very much wished to do.

HOWEVER ...  then she gets abducted and raped by one of the thieving Czech robber-knights named Mikolaš (played by František Velecký [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*).  And to make the point, that he's both a villain and "in charge," he _nails_ Marketa's father to the door of his citadel in crucified form.

Eventually this (and other crimes) are avenged.  The stage is set for the eventual resolution of the lawless situation existing in these lands (As mentioned above, historically, the actual Czech King Vaclav I came to INVITE ethnic German settlers to settle in these frontier-lands to bring order to them).  Finally, Marketa escapes to briefly fulfill her dream of entering into the Convent.  BUT ... (1) she comes to find the life of the nuns "too wordy" (boring ;-), and (2) by then she's pregnant with her rapist's,  Mikolaš', child.  So she leaves ...

What then to think of this "epic drama" of her "simple life"?  Well, the film notes that "stories like Marketa's were often left unknown" outside of the immediate vicinity in which they happened and only "retold at the hearths of local women going about their chores," needed to be searched-out in a "manner not unlike a dowser looks for water beneath the earth with a dowsing rod."

The story is certainly part Communist era propaganda ("We COMMUNISTS aim to make grand Epic Tales of stories of common people that nobody else would...").  Indeed, Marketa first comes on screen in the film as a veritable cinematographic incarnation of the French proletarian/peasant girl in Jules Breton's painting "Song of the Lark."

HOWEVER, like the works of the Czech director's Russian Soviet-era influences, this film is also _obviously more_ than "just propaganda."

Consider simply that this story (told in both book and film, written and directed by Czechs) was about arguably THE ORIGINS of the Sudeten Crisis, which so traumatized the Czechs / Sudeten Germans in the years around World War II.  YET THE STORY DOES NOT PORTRAY MOST OF THE CZECHS PARTICULARLY WELL (There are Marketa Lazarová, her father and the nuns who are portrayed well, but the rest, including her rapist ... Mikuláš, are often portrayed quite badly).  On the other hand, the Germans (the German bishop as well as several others) are portrayed as being QUITE HONEST.  THEN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH is ALSO PORTRAYED QUITE POSITIVELY.  Okay, Marketa eventually leaves the Convent, which had been portrayed as her childhood, if perhaps "naive" goal.  But the Convent was portrayed throughout the story as quite literally as "a shining beacon on a hill."

So as expensive as the film was, made during the height of the Czechoslovak Communist era, with both the director and the writer of the book on which it was based carrying "impeccable" Communist era pedigrees, the film was also truly a work of art.

Hence, the film probably deserves the title, "Greatest Czech language film (thusfar) ever made."  But as all else in the story (of both Marketa Lazarová and then of the film itself), IMHO it's all "more complicated" than it would seem ;-).  But then THAT TOO need not be bad!

Good / great film!

Note: This film is available through the rent-by-mail service offered by Facets Multimedia in Chicago, as well as for purchase and streaming at a reasonable price through

 * Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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