Frantisek Vlácil is considered one of the pioneers of the Czech New Wave. Having started out as a graphic artist, Vlácil ventured into film, particularly features, much later in his career, and therefore belonged to an earlier generation to his other New Wave contemporaries. He wasn’t film school trained, but his extraordinary visual flair had enabled him to bequeath cinema with some of the most exquisite compositions ever captured on film. Obsessed with detail and equipped with a natural instinct for theatre, his films presented drama and history of the very highest order – art pieces that until recently, were also among the best kept secrets in cinema, because not many outside his country got to see them. There is an informative article about Frantisek Vlácil in BFI’s old website that some may find of interest.
I’ll start Vlácil’s filmography here with what is arguably his finest masterpiece, “Marketa Lazarová”, a film that in 1998 was also voted the greatest Czech film ever made by his country’s film makers, critics, and historians. The medieval epic could broadly be compared in its authenticity and grandeur to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, and in its feudal subject matter to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Berri’s Manon des sources – it’s no coincidence that the comparable films are also masterpieces in their own right.
The film tells a tale of neighbours who become sworn enemies – the noblemen and their respective clans will feud to death in order to gain supremacy over the region. One of the two, pagan Kozlik (Josef Kemr), called ‘Goat’, is a battle-scarred man who has more children than the number of pigs in his farm. He and his sons make a living by preying on caravans passing through the highway.
The other – Lazar (Michal Kozuch), is a Christian, who selectively interprets his new religion to justify criminality and treachery – according to him, “the just are allowed to transgress seven times a day”. Obviously, ‘noblemen’ during those dark ages weren’t necessarily men who were morally erect, cultured, and law-abiding – it was all about survival of the fittest and the most brutal.
Lazar had promised what he holds most dear, his virginal daughter Marketa (Magda Vásáryová), to the Church, in the hope of redeeming himself from his seven-a-day transgressions. But fate dictates otherwise when Marketa is abducted and raped by Mikolás (Frantisek Velecký), Kozlik’s favourite son, during one of the clan’s raids.
Kozlik’s got problems too – he’s holding a young German count captive, and the King had already instructed the Royal Regiment’s Captain to arrest him. The captain will get his man through one of Kozlik’s other sons – the one-armed Adam (Ivan Palúch). But before that, there will be plenty of carnage and skulduggery from both sides, and sub-plots involving other characters, including a wandering hermit aptly named Bernard (Vladimír Mensík) and his lamb, and the story behind Adam’s one-handedness, which in turn will shed light on his past relationship with his sister Alexandra (Pavla Polaskova), who’s now in love with the captive German count.
Aside from its starkness and harsh brutality, this is also a pretty difficult film to follow, and to make an objective assessment would take more than a single viewing. While this is partly due to it’s ‘lyrical’ screenplay, it is exacerbated for foreign viewers with the subtitling that translates the literal rather than implied message from the dialogues, as often happens with literary works. If you approach the film as you would an ancient play, the film will begin to make a whole lot more sense.
Whether you could follow the plot or not, this will be one of the most visually gorgeous films you’ll ever see. Bedrich Batka’s breathtaking black and white cinematography that carefully interprets Vlácil’s compositions, combined with the eclectic but majestic film-score, will have you transfixed from the very beginning – it’s difficult to take your eyes off the screen because it is that sumptuous. My Second Run DVD is spectacular in itself, but Criterion has now come out with a Blu-ray edition as well. This is naturally one of the ‘must-see’ films for any film enthusiast, and is certainly Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Magda Vásáryová and Pavla Polaskova
Beautiful Magda Vásáryová makes her feature film début as the titular character – she’d become a star and will later venture into politics as well, by serving as diplomat, and also running for presidency in Slovakia. She briefly appears nude during a scene when her character is raped by Mikolás – and ironically they fall in love afterwards. There is also frontal nudity from exotic beauty Pavla Polaskova who plays Alexandra, the wild and sensuous daughter of Kozlik. She appears nude in two scenes – the first is during the young German count’s fantasy, and later when it becomes reality.