Wolves. Even the word itself feels somehow medieval. In Marketa Lazarová, the 1967 Czech film by František Vláčil, they seem like grim observers or perhaps judges of human folly, a dark-eyed audience that knows more than we do. (The film is now playing at BAM.)
Marketa Lazarová is purported to be "the greatest Czech film of all time." Perhaps this is true, but Czech cinema proudly boasts many excellent and strange expressions. Jan Švankmajer's Little Otik, Meat Love or Faust. Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball. Daisies by Věra Chytilová. (I wonder if Daisies inspired the voice in this excellent Chilean stop-action short horror called Lucia.) That said, Marketa is a wild adventure of a film.
Shot over two years in forests and on frozen fields, in swamps and in ruined castles, right around the time Paradzhanov was making Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1965) and Tarkovsky' tackled Andrei Rublev (1966), Marketa really feels wooded, stinky, bloody, frightened, leathery, smokey, icy and painful. Vláčil insisted that the cast remain on set the entire time and that all of the costumes be handmade to preserve a sense of a 13th century existence. This is perhaps the film’s highest achievement. The look is spectacular and the costumes are tactile in a way that few films have achieved. They are real and used, dirty and skin-like, as if they were worn all the time... which they were.
The cinematography also arches into the spectacular, with twisting, knotted shots, intense close-ups and very well composed, painterly images. Bedřich Baťka, the man behind the lens, is as fond of the single eye peering through a broken door or through fronds of rushes by a frozen swamp as he is of the wide shot of fields and forests where, in the distance, we can see dots of human life make their way across the horizon.
One of the more arresting images takes place late in the film when Marketa attempts to seek refuge in a convent. She is pushed by the Mother Superior to denounce her past life in front of the entire community. Marketa’s face is demonic, as is the face of a small boy who accompanies her, and the nun is severe. But it’s the walls of nuns behind her that really make the shots. It’s as if the ghosts of Christianity yet to come have arrived to menace. Marketa eventually leaves, but it felt like a moment of horror.
The story is a bit less appealing than the aesthetics. It struggles, like so many medieval films, to get out from under the strain of overwrought manliness. We see too transparently what I would guess is Vláčil’s own masculine agenda. The raped woman loves her rapist, etc. That kind of thing, to me, just seems tired, overdone and shallow, a phony psychology that masquerades as human nature. It's nearly complete until, at the end, Marketa walks into the distance to find a new life to raise her yet-unborn child and the child of Alexandra, her doppelganger, as though a new era of feminism were about to dawn as patriarchy bludgeoned itself back into darkness. This meaning seems important if we take Marketa’s last name to be Lazarus of Bethany, the man Jesus brings back to life. Marketa does seem to be embarking on a new life, poignantly after living one filled with torture and despair.
The upshot is that Marketa Lazarová is an amazingly atmospheric piece in look and feel. The costumes are phenomenal and the peering gazes of the characters with their crumpled builds, limps, wounds and missing appendages are often arresting. Well worth the 2h45m escapade, as long as you’re up for medieval mania.
Marketa Lazarová is playing at BAM tonight and tomorrow night (March 5 & 6, 2014), but you can also watch it on the Criterion channel on HuluPlus. A note on each: You probably want to see this film in a theater where the sights and sounds consume you. But the subtitles in the print at BAM are often illegible, which can be frustrating. Whereas on HuluPlus, you can easily follow what is happening. The subtitles are very clear.