The Valley of the Bees Review
Following up their 2007 release of Marketa Lazarová, a disc that marked its international premiere on the format, Second Run now return to Frantisek Vlácil for his subsequent feature, The Valley of the Bees. The two films make for interesting bedfellows, sharing the same 13th century setting and serving as perfect demonstrations of Vlácil’s very distinctive style. Yet whereas Marketa Lazarová was an incredibly dense work in narrative terms, The Valley of the Bees is comparatively simple. In essence the film could almost be a Western: the tale of the pursued and his pursuer, set amongst a harsh, unforgiving landscape.
The pursued is Ondrej, whom we first see as a young boy. The scene is his father’s wedding, to a bride of roughly his equivalent age. His exact motives are never detailed, yet Ondrej demonstrates his distaste in the situation by placing bats in a basket of petals designed to be thrown by his father’s new wife. Her ensuing terror results in the son being thrown, quite brutally, at a wall and consequently sent to the Order of the Teutonic Knights. Ondrej spends a number of years at the Order, effectively raised by them and befriending his eventual pursuer, Armin, only to escape in adulthood in the hope of returning home.
And so The Valley of the Bees pits the one man against the other, the rebel and the zealot. Yet Vlácil is careful not to keep things so clear-cut and continually plays upon his characters’ ambiguities. Most prominent is the suggested latent homoeroticism between Ondrej and Armin. Their first scenes together involve, firstly, the older Armin coming across a nude young Ondrej as he crouches by the sea, and secondly, both men naked as they clutch each others arms whilst the tide laps over them, a ritual intended to “numb the lower body for the sake of the spirit”. Furthermore, when in pursuit, Armin refers to Ondrej as “my brother” we are unsure as to whether this holds mere religious significance or is suggestive of something more, something closer. Certainly, every word spoken by Armin is one of complete conviction and yet even here we find room to manoeuvre. Ondrej, on the other hand, speaks more overtly through his actions, playing up the contrast between these two men, yet at the same time leaving us similarly unsure as to his exact intentions. The balance between Armin’s religious convictions and Ondrej’s more humanistic side is never set in perfect opposition, there is always the hint that each believes the other could be swayed to their way of thinking.
Indeed, there are no heroes and villains in Vlácil’s world. To continue the Western analogy, he neatly subverts the white hat-black hat morality by making Armin the more outwardly appealing. He has the blond hair and the sense of purpose. Ondrej meanwhile is the darker of the two and governed by less perceivable motives, an aspect which we can draw back to that initial scene and the sabotaging of his father’s wedding. His desire to return home is never made entirely clear; is it simply to escape the Order or are there other reasons for him to see his father once more? The result in narrative terms is one of complete tension and again prompts a series of questions. What will Armin do if and when he catches up with Ondrej? What will Ondrej do upon his arrival home and seeing his father and stepmother for the first time in many years? How will Armin react to the outside and those he must interact with as he goes about his pursuit?
Moreover, the landscape in which these questions are answered is, as said, a harsh and unforgiving one, thus furthering the tensions. Vlácil maintains the attention to detail which contributed to Marketa Lazarová being such an astonishing work, clearly revelling in this world of smokestacks and dead bramble. Time and again the camera focuses in on the textures of the characters’ surroundings, making them so real you can practically taste them. There is a line used to describe Armin at one point, noting how he is both frightening and enticing, and it is tempting to use the same description for Vlácil’s style and approach. The world he creates is not a beautiful one, but it is stunning nonetheless. Even the most astounding shots - a body being thrown to dogs from an overhead angle, blood slowly seeping from a mouth into a roadside puddle - have a harsh brutality to them, at once remarkable and off-putting. Add to this Zdenek Liska’s discordant score, revolving around lone pipes and a full choir, and The Valley of the Bees can only intimidate further. Furthermore, such accompaniments serve to enhance the plight of these two men and those around them; the sheer bleakness leaves us with no false hopes as to a happy ending.
Second Run are releasing The Valley of the Bees as a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 0 and with the spine number of 40. The film comes in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced, and its original mono soundtrack. The picture quality is a notch or two above that of their Marketa Lazarová disc and seemingly taken from a damage-free print. At times it looks really quite wonderful, demonstrating a terrific level of detail particularly during medium shots and close-ups. The long shots fare less well with some of the film’s textures (chain-mail, brickwork) prompting shimmering effects, though this is not a continuous problem. Furthermore, by all accounts the presentation marks a step up from Facets’ NTSC disc released a few years back. Similarly improving on that disc we also find a new English subtitle translation and, of course, these subtitles are optional. The soundtrack has also been cleaned up and restored - an aspect Second Run always do excellent work in - and comes across superbly. As with the print there are no signs of deterioration or damage and as such it remains crisp and clean throughout. Finally, the disc also contains a 20-page booklet containing a lengthy piece from Peter Hames in which he surveys Vlácil’s entire career, complete with analysis of The Valley of the Bees itself - a wonderful introduction to a filmmaker who is finally beginning to merit the attention he deserves in the UK thanks to Second Run’s releases such as this one. Speaking of which, the label plan to release his 1969 feature Adelheid in the near future.