Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Land of the Wolf: BAM screens 35mm restoration of Czech classic, F. Vlacil's MARKETA LAZAROVA

The following post is by our occasional 
guest critic and writer, Lee Liberman.

The medieval world created by Czech filmmaker Frantisek Vlacil for his operatic film of wonder, MARKETA LAZAROVA, does not square with your usual medieval genre piece. It appears to be a story about warring clans, but the plot is subordinate to what may be its real reason for being -- to give its audience a taste of the state of numbed existence that results from anarchy and repression. Voted by Czech critics and film-makers their nation's greatest film some 30 years after its release in 1967, it will be screened at BAM Cinématek in Brooklyn from Feb 28-March 6 and is also available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones novels and HBO series are by contrast gorgeous winged-dragon versions of medieval clan warfare -- plot and character driven. Vlacil's medieval canvas is a black and white nightmare in which plots and people are fogged over but you know bad things are happening from which you'd like to wake up.

The Middle or Dark Ages gave us popular tales of romance and struggle -- of which the Mists of Avalon, Arthurian legends, Tristan and Isolde, Braveheart, Robin Hood are just a few. It is that period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance in which anarchy and brute struggle for survival replaced national identity and citizenship. Roman infrastructure was crumbling away, its systems of governing and taxation long gone, leaving rival clans on their own to battle each other and/or local kings over turf, honor, resources. 

Director Vlacil, shown at left, places his clan grudge match in the 1200's in a stone-age version of the Dark Ages (stylistically more like the period than most). To get his cast in primal struggle mode, he seques-tered them in the Bohemian forests living off the land in rags and skins for several years. He succeeded -- the affect they deliver on celluloid calls to mind the old zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead. During the 1960's while Vlacil was making his film, the Czechs were under Soviet control. Marketa's story, ostensibly apolitical, may be a device created by a storyteller unable to criticize real-time Soviet domination for its numbing effects.

In the end the film is a political statement, if not an obvious one -- set many hundreds years earlier so as to be hard to label as contemporary dissent. It depicts a Middle Ages world lurching between extremes of catatonia and violence caused by poverty, geographic isolation, and shifting national identity in its own game of thrones. (The film's source novel was written in 1931 by Czech novelist, Vladislav Vancura -- executed by the Nazi's in 1942 for resistance to occupation. A translation of the novel is in progress by Alex Zucker.)

Shakespeare gave us a more humanistic view of clan grudge match in Romeo and Juliet in which Prince Escalus shows up to scold the battling Montagues and Capulets, now grieving the deaths of their children. "All are punished," he says. The Bard has brought all to tragedy and tears; the Prince represents civil order. 

The Saxon nobility in Vlacil's film also represent governing order, but as with all factions in Marketa Lazarova, no one character or group wins our sympathy, empathy, or judgment over another; not one tear falls for victims, and no positioning favors justice or order. Vlacil has us watch murder, crucifixion, incest, rape, mutilation, marriage of a live woman to a corpse, the devouring of human remains by wolves and more. But we are numbed by disjointed dialogue and jagged changes of scene; it's easier not to look closely, not have any feelings at all. The titular character, Marketa (above), a teenage virgin promised to the cloister (below), does not appear until midway in the film, always with the flat, unfocused eyes of a starved dog. She is raped and abducted by an enemy who has just crucified her father (two photos up) but we are told she falls in love with her rapist and rejects the nuns -- all without a shred of emotion, save the muffled undercurrent of rage that propels the action.

The narrator's opening disclaimer puts us off the importance of plot: "This tale was cobbled together almost at random and hardly merits praise." And from the first frame, the viewer's senses are drowned visually in a wide-screen black-white panorama of human squalor in stark winter and swampy spring accompanied by a gorgeous score of keening chorales, tolling bells, and constant subliminal muttering -- easy to watch but difficult to follow (this descriptive imagery paraphrased from J Hoberman of the NYReview, July 2013). In fact we literally feel catapulted and then submerged into the forest world, aided by then-novel camera work, jerky perspective shifts, and the use of lenses that focus near and far in rapid succession, just as the human eye refocuses constantly. The viewer is as fogged over about violent plottings as we are ignorant of the deals going down on the street corners of our own daily lives; one simply screens out excess stimuli. The immersion in Vlasic's sensually enveloping physical environment replaces what otherwise might be a proper narrative spun out to historical, moral, or emotional purpose. You are simply in the scene and had better keep head down or risk an arrow lodged in the eye.

If you want program notes, there are many plot outlines on line, though being armed with detail does not create involvement; it helps reinforce how much the director has been distracting you from caring about who is doing what to whom. Three groups drive the action -- the pagan clan of professional bandits, the Kosliks, the for-ostentatious-display-only Christian family of Lazar merchants, and the more civilized German knights dispatched to bring order. This fabric is roughed up by a menacing pack of wolves (seen at top) poised to pounce, and mellowed by heavenly white-lit nuns (two photos above), wandering monk Bernard (below, who carries around the severed head of his beloved sheep), and Katerina, a pagan witch. Bernard and Katerina babble nonsense, predisposing the viewer to ignore them both equally, which is to say, to slide right on by any tension that may be here between the church and the old pagan ways.

Thus 'show' by the director and 'tell' by the narrator cause the details of plot and the impulse to take sides to be sidelined without judgment or pity. Rather the viewer submits to the tapestry of chimes, ringing bells, and heavenly voices; ducks to avoid projectiles; and cowers watching humans skirmish for remains along with the wolf pack. (One is reminded of nature programs about survival of the fittest among the beasts of the Serengeti.) While the effect is stark and beautiful, it is not a narrative that inspires the viewer to know or care about Marketa, her relatives or enemies, or be aroused by their deeds. As an artist craving freedom, the filmmaker appears to have wanted his audience to experience what dissociation and numbness feel like. After near 3 hours in Vlacil's land of disorder, one exits the theater quite relieved to return to our own land with all its faults.

As a footnote, the young Czech actress who played Marketa, Magda Vasaryova, is now a famous liberal dlplomat and politician in her mid-sixties. (That's she, below, at a screening of the film during the 2011 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.) Film director Vlacil was a painter and graphic designer as well as prolific filmmaker. He died in 1999.

BAM Cinématek's week-long run of Marketa Lazarova extends from this Friday, February 28 through Thursday, March 6. For screening times, directions to BAM, etc. -- simply click here.

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