There’s an underseen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.
Director František Vláčil spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship.
Few films also match Marketa Lazarová‘s dazzling visuals with such authentic production values, so while the virtuosity of Vláčil’s film making often distracts from the story, the credibility of its setting is never in doubt.
Based on the novel by Vladislav Vančura, which in turn was based on an ancient Czech legend, the film declares itself a “Rhapsody” on the title card. That might seem a little precious, but Vláčil is a director who freely admits to valuing visuals over story, and by dispensing with most conventional narrative techniques creates a film that is both lyrical and rhapsodic. It is perhaps best enjoyed if you can forget the story and surrender yourself to it as a purely sensory experience.
The fragmented plot, which flitters and swoops from one timeline and perspective to the next, follows a feudal clan going about their business of pillaging, murdering, robbing and raping.
The clan, headed by the fierce Kozlík (Josef Kemr), makes the mistake of ambushing a caravan belonging to a close ally of the king. The king dispatches a force to capture the unruly patriach for execution, and the band flee deeper into the woods. Not before paying a visit to neighbouring Lazar. After another violent exchange, elder brother Mikoláš (František Velecký) kidnaps the man’s daughter Marketa, drags her off to their compound and rapes her. She later falls in love with him as the king’s forces close in.
The story is sometimes obtuse and difficult to follow. This feels deliberate, as Vláčil seems quite happy to parachute the viewer into this brutal world and leave them helpless, and to experience the film on a purely visceral level. While many Czech classics are cosy, bittersweet and parochial, Marketa Lazarová is a wild and capricious epic, the unremitting grimness contrasting with Bedřich Baťka’s lucid camerawork, which produces sequences and images of almost hallucinatory beauty.
Shot in stark black and white, the film has a timeless feel – it could have been shot a hundred years ago or yesterday. While its most obvious contemporary comparison is Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, the film’s centre piece, a siege on Kozlík’s squalid hill fort, recalls the chaos of the Seven Samurai‘s last stand, or even the do-or-die D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan.
Magda Vášáryová’s eponymous Marketa acts as an audience surrogate amid all this medieval mayhem, although she has surprisingly little screen time. While the bulk of the film focusses on Kozlík, Mikoláš and several other characters, it is Marketa’s beauty haunts the film, like Anne Lambert in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Ultimately, after all the men around her have behaved like cavemen, barely better than the wild beasts that roam the land, it is Marketa who walks away with her head held high.
The nagging doubt I have about Marketa Lazarová is whether it actually amounts to much beyond its technical bravura. The story seems too buried in history and the film makers so entranced by their own skill for the film to resonate on any real emotional level. That said, it’s an incredible cinematic experience that demands viewing on the biggest and best screen possible, and is a mighty achievement that bears favourable comparison to other heavyweights of world cinema.