B&W, 1967, 162m.
Directed by Frantisek Vlácil
Starring Josef Kemr, Magda Vásáryová, Nada Hejna, Jaroslav Moucka, Frantisek Velecký, Ivan Palúch, Michal Kozuch
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Second Run (UK R0 PAL), National Film Archive (/ WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
In 2007, adventurous English-speaking cineastes were startled by a British DVD release from Second Run as part of their ongoing series of Czech and Polish titles. Though it played some film festivals in the late '60s, Marketa Lazarová was an unknown quantity for many viewers outside the Czech Republic, where it's held in high esteem as one of their finest achievements. Why it took so long for the film to find an English-friendly audience is anyone's guess, as what we have here is a brilliant, still startling film with some of the most intense, dreamlike imagery of any era.
In a stark medieval kingdom filled with expansive forests, lakes, and snowy fields, a pair of thieving brothers, Mikolás (Velecký) and Adam (Palúch), are guided by their father, Kozlík (Kemr). As Christianity is beginning to take sway in the more civilized regions, they wind up in trouble when a robbery gone bad sends them scrambling for help and making enemies with one of their potential ally townsmen, Lazar (Kozuch), who heads another robber clan. Kozlik and his sons are forced to abduct Lazar's daughter, intended young nun Marketa (Vásáryová), as a hostage, and she and Mikolás establish a very unconventional bond.
A basic synopsis can't really do justice at all to the experience of watching this film, which accumulates characters and incidents in a heady rush of vertiginous camerawork and a jolting soundtrack filled with eerie chanting and confrontational narration. The end result is an epic unlike any other, with casual bloodshed and nudity rubbing shoulders with borderline avant garde film techniques; perhaps when you imagine that most people's idea of a modern epic was Doctor Zhivago made only two years earlier, and that could explain why this didn't go over too well with potential American exhibitors.
Seen today, it's fun to pinpoint techniques and visual motifs that would turn up in later films like Ken Russell's The Devils and the films of Andrzej Zulawski, especially The Devil and The Third Part of Night, and at times one even has to marvel at how much it anticipates the aesthetic of TV's Game of Thrones with its leaping between contrasting landscapes, recurring wolves, and clashing groups of characters jockeying for power. That said, this film still feels wholly fresh and would have proven to be far more influential had anyone been able to see it more easily.
The bare bones UK DVD was still an essential release at the time, spurring on additional subtitled releases of two more films from director Frantisek Vlácil, The Valley of the Bees and Adelheid (as well as a four-disc boxed set). Meanwhile a Czech 4K restoration was undertaken and released first as a pricey Czech Blu-Ray in 2012 (with optional English subtitles for most of the dialogue), but most English speakers will get a much better value with the 2013 Criterion Blu-Ray (with a DVD also available, but with this film every extra bit of resolution counts). The HD transfer looks superb, bringing out eye-popping details in clothing textures, landscapes, and architectural flourishes, while the LPCM mono audio sounds terrific.
The extensive extras include four new interviews with participants in the film -- Vásáryová, Palúch, actor Vladimir Harapes, and costume designer Theodor Pistek -- as well as video discussions with film historian Peter Hames and film critic Atonin Liehm. The late Vlácil is also represented via "In the Web of Times," a 1989 documentary short by cinematographer Frantisek Uldrich, while the film's restoration is covered in a piece with Ivo Marak, the technical director for Universal Production Partners. Also included are a storyboard gallery, the trailer, and a thick liner notes booklet containing a lengthy essay about the film by Tom Gunning entitled "Cinema of the Wolf," an Alex Zucker piece about the source novel by Vladislav Vančura (which is actually very short and hasn't been published in America until 2013), and a 1969 Vlácil text interview from Antonin Liehm's book, Closely Watched Films The Czechoslovak Experience. The picture that emerges from all of these extras is that of an intense production with the cast and some of the crew immersing themselves in a stripped-down, year-long preparation in the wilderness to get in the right mind set of the period while making a visually oriented film that would rebel against the talky, antiseptic attitudes they felt were bogging down Czech cinema at the time. The end result certainly paid off with a vibrant, sometimes shocking, and consistently dazzling film as good as any you'll see this year.
Reviewed on June 8, 2013.