Marketa Lazarova Review
Many acclaimed films are often met with a degree of jealousy and a failure to comprehend their virtues. Message boards all over the internet are strewn with comments about classics like Citizen Kane being over-rated whilst the latest Steven Seagal is lauded as its superior for kickass action and all round entertainment. A large reason for the failure to appreciate great films comes in the immediacy of today's culture and the corresponding lack of understanding of the original context in a time where technology and technique has now outstripped what went before. The deep-focus of Citizen Kane, the revolutionary elliptical storyline and the novel approach to sound recording and camera position don't seem so special now and even the long backwards tracking shot from street to newspaper office is common place today. Time has worn away at many films reputations and greater access to great films has led many to the belief that they don't deserve their reputation. Sometimes negative re-evaluations are quite right, but often the latterday naysayers are just plain wrong and shortsighted.
Marketa Lazarova is a sprawling epic adaptation of Vladislav Vancura's novel by Czech director Frantisek Vlácil, it is also a film voted the greatest Czech film of all time and it thoroughly deserves its fine reputation. It is told in episodic novel format with different chapters introduced by intertitles explaining the events you are about to see, and it is set in the medieval Czech Republic. The story is one that has been treated in many national contexts, and is concerned with the feudal world of tribe and superstition and the growing influence of church and state. Like many westerns since, the setting is one of lawlessness and the establishment of power through might.
The film begins with the ambush of well-to-do horsemen on their way through the lands rife with robber barons like Kozlik and his tribe. Whilst Adam, Kozlik's one armed son, lures the travellers, his brother Mikolas picks them off. One of the party escapes and Mikolas takes the youngest, Kristian, as a hostage. Back a Kozlik's fort, the father is mortified that his son let one get away and his daughter Alexandra is taken with the young hostage. Kozlik is further amazed that Mikolas has let a pedlar, Lazar, live. His fears prove well founded when the King's army starts making for his tribe and Mikolas tries to get Lazar to help fight them, only to be beaten and rescued by Marketa, Lazar's daughter. For this assault, Kozlik makes Lazar pay with a crucifixion and the kidnapping of his daughter. Love blossoms between Marketa and Mikolas, and father is set against son. The kings men capture Adam, who leads them to Kozlik's hideaway for their bloody retribution.
Shot in dreamy black and white, this is a very striking film filled with marked contrasts. The central characters reflect this well with Mikolas, the older instinctive wolf like son of a pagan bandit, and Marketa the devout Christian waiting to become a nun. Both face exile from their backgrounds due to their singular natures and both have a level of decency foreign to those around them. Mikolas' father, Kozlik, rules his family through violence and fear, he is a feudal dictator, and Marketa's father is a Christian zealot, morally dubious and lacking compassion. To add to the world these people live in, there is the convent on the hill filled with uniform nuns and the brutal king's army chasing Kozlik down.
These contrasts and competing forces lead to strife and the two lovers' loyalties are tested. Marketa is rejected once she cleaves to Mikolas by her father, and she finds even the sanctuary of the convent less satisfying than her role as wife. For Mikolas, his rebellion against his father leads him to being chained with his tribes' hostages, but when he is freed he can't escape with his woman until he has answered the call of his now imprisoned father. Other characters are tested as well, Adam rejects his dreams of revenge against Kozlik for his lost arm, and Alexandra will have to kill her lover Kristian because of her father's defeat by the king's men.
These ties and the characters' split loyalties are further emphasised through the regular use of different perspectives in the film, especially the use of first person shots to make the viewer identify with the people on screen. The camera moves and swoops throughout and the use of long takes allows the audience to identify with the hurly burly and confusion of battles, large and small. The photography captures the humanity on the faces of the characters such as the vulpine Mikolas and the caring Marketa, and there are some excellent shots which show the convent as a terrifying chorus of habits and denunciation. Some individual sequences achieve a surreal beauty and rare intensity such as the incest flashbacks and the loss of Adam's arm.Like The Virgin Spring, Christian and Pagan imagery abound, and whereas Bergman's film still held fragments of his soon to be gone faith, here the effect is far less about praising God or religion. With the exception of Marketa, all of the Christian characters are vengeful, inhumane and authoritarian. The film seems to conclude that when state and Church have done with us we return to the personal ties of family and love, and that is a message which holds true for more times and places than post 1968 Czechoslovakia's. This is a film which deserves the company of Bergman's medieval pieces without feeling overwhelmed. Undeniably a classic
This is a bare-bones disc with the movie transferred anamorphically at 2.35:1. The original print has a number of lines, marks and hairs, but the transfer has been done well with a surprising level of sharpness and detail. Overall, the image seems a little too dark which means the contrast lacks some subtlety at times. Still, fiddle with a few knobs and it'll look superb and Second Run deserve high praise for this fine transfer.
Restoration has occurred with the mono audio track. There are some rare moments of distortion in the crescendos of the score, but dialogue is always clear and the overall impact is far less flat than some mono tracks that I have heard recently. The removeable English subs are clearly legible and well composed.
The sole extra is the sixteen page booklet which comes with the disc. This contains an essay from Peter Hames adapted from a chapter of his book, The Cinema of Central Europe. Hames gives background on the director's work and the cast, alongside an appreciation of the film. Written in an accessible style and far from stuffy, this is an enjoyable introduction to the work.
An excellent film given a fine treatment from Second Run. If you enjoy Bergman's work on The Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring or The Magician, then you will definitely appreciate Marketa Lazarova.