Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Film Review: Marketa Lazarová for Rabelais Magazine

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

An article I wrote for the La Trobe University magazine, Rabelais. Published in the 2013 first edition.

The Czech masterpiece Marketa Lazarová and European cinema’s inclination towards medieval representations throughout the mid-20th century.

By Olivia Maria Hărşan

Once communism invaded Eastern Europe, symbolism became a highly mastered tool utilized by filmmakers who wanted to speak against ideals they found oppressive. Prior to this time, such silent titles as Haxan : Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) were known for portraying the middle ages but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that European cinema went through the interesting phase of re-inventing the historical epic genre. František Vláčil’s film Marketa Lazarová (1967) is a perfect example of the filmic experimentation that flourished as a result of contextual changes. The director effectively associates the motifs of Christianity, Paganism and death to the milieu of late-1960s Czechoslovakia. It is a film comprised of foreboding images that are metaphorically complex and therefore indicative of a multifaceted socio-political period.

Over thirty years after its release, Czech film critics named Marketa Lazarová the best Czech film ever made, which is ironic considering the director is seldom mentioned in the nation’s cinema history. A native of Brno, František Vláčil studied art and aesthetics before collaborating on puppet and documentary filmmaking projects. However, it soon became clear to the future auteur that his passions resided in poetic imagery and experimental storytelling. His second feature film, Devil’s Trap (1962) is the first of what would become a series of historical films, including an adaptation of the novel Marketa Lazarová written in 1931 by the avant-garde author, Vladislav Vančura. Although the film is, more appropriately, an interpretation rather than an adaptation of the book – setting is not established in the novel as it is in the film – Vláčil’s reconstruction of Marketa Lazarová is justified through the use of unconventional storytelling akin to Vančura’s objective prose.

The story is not so much about the character of Marketa but rather, in pure Shakespearian style, focuses on a feud that erupts between two neighbouring clans, the Lazars and the Kozlík. Marketa’s father, Lazar, is a highway thief who crosses paths with Mikolas and his brother Adam as they attack a Saxon count. Lazar robs the deceased before the Kozlik brothers return to claim their loots. Mikolas allows Lazar to walk free, but not long after, Lazar attacks back and sends the Kozlik clan into a path of fury. At the centre of this feud is the strange love story of Marketa and Mikoláš, which acts as a subplot to the film. For most of the part, Marketa Lazarová is an account about the fight for authority. There are many scenes in which the characters use stones and blocks of wood to kill people that prove to be a threat or are merely in the way. Vlacil depicts an authentic representation of the Middle Ages when the struggle for power exceeded religious values and beliefs. The characters in the film are devout Christians but in the case of Lazar, for instance, use God as an excuse to lie, steal and kill.
Divided into two major parts with intervals in between, it is not difficult to recognize the director’s literary background. The visual aspects – camera angles, mise-en-scène, shades and tones– are nothing short of poetic. Vlacil combines the genre characteristics of a Germanic folklore with the mystique of Bohemian art and culture. The themes of Paganism and black magic are very much at the core of the story. Alexandra, the sister of Mikoláš, is a witch who barely engages in any dialogue throughout the film, but appears nude in a repetitive dream sequence, performing strange rituals with daggers and snakes. Wolves appear in various scenes as dark shadows, watching the characters, whom in turn refer to them as ‘beasts’, implying that they are a bad omen. Moreover, Vlacil hints at Ancient Greek mythology. In the second part of the film, a monk named Bernard, talks to his pet lamb and to himself as if he is insane. He appears a number of times, either in search of his lamb or to encourage the good in people. The character of Bernard is comparable to the chorus of an Ancient Greek play because he acts as a mediator, but also directs attention to Bacchic nuances, particularly in a scene where he holds the severed head of his lamb resembling Euripides’ character Agave when she carries the head of her son, Pentheus.

The visual compositions are unconventional for the time – obstructions in the foreground, fast panoramas, rapid zoom, Dutch angles – transform the meaning of what we see and challenges our perceptions of reality and the imagined. Moreover, the slanted frames and the constant shift of perspective evokes a bizarre atmosphere. The surreal images function as allegories for 1960s counterculture or what became known in 1968 Czechoslovakia as the ‘Prague Spring’ when the established authority – government and law enforcers – were intolerable towards the new generation of free-thinkers. The apocalyptic scene of a white horse – pure and innocent in nature – drowning in decrepit marshlands represents a sense of gloom and despair, perhaps hinting at the communist backdrop of the time. 

Reinforcing the metaphorical scenes is a haunting score composed by Zdeněk Liška. A key collaborator of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Liška presents a concoction of experimental sounds and resonant theatrical hymns. At one point an erratic xylophonic tune is entwined with the shouts and laughter of a mentally disabled villager, while the sound of what is interpreted as a church choir echoes through the film. It also must be stated that Theodor Pištěk’s costumes are unpretentious and accurate of the time and Bedřich Baťka’s cinematography is flawless.

Similar to Andrei Tarkovsky’s period drama Andrei Rublev (1966), Marketa Lazarová imports both political and humanistic issues of the present and conveys them through a mirror of the past. It is also a fairy tale oddly suggestive of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) in terms of its visual elements but leaning more towards the themes and mood portrayed in Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) and The Seventh Seal (1957). Thus, Marketa Lazarová is somewhat of a paradox as it is both supernatural and realist, and it is both a story of the past and of the present.

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