Judge Daryl Loomis takes his marauding very seriously.
Love fought with cruelty, and with doubt, for their souls.
In a 1998 poll of Czech filmmakers and critics, Marketa Lazarová was named the greatest film ever to come from their country. That's a big statement, given some pretty great Czech films over the years. Since its release, the majority of American audiences never had a chance to see for themselves…until now. Marketa Lazarová sees its first home theater release courtesy of the Criterion Collection, and it's their best release of the year.
Facts of the Case
It's the middle ages somewhere in Czechoslovakia and two rival clans are vying for supremacy over the region. First, there's the clan of Kozlik (Josef Kemr, Witchhammer), a group of pagan marauders supported by the Germans who control the area and make their way by robbing and murdering wayfarers. Second, the group led by Lazar (Michal Kozuch, The Valley of the Bees), whose modern Christian ways run afoul of many in the region. Lazar has promised his daughter Marketa (Magda Vásáryová, Granny) to the church, but a revenge plot by Kozlik's group means that not only does the convent not get their new recruit, but Marketa becomes fodder for the Kozliks to enjoy, even as their world falls apart.
Marketa Lazarová is a terribly hard movie to describe. It's story, like Vladislav Vancura's novel, is told more poetically than linearly, with imagery taking precedent over plot for director František Vláčil. This lyrical and difficult film is something that will take multiple viewings to understand and internalize, but that's what makes the experience so rewarding.
Visually, Marketa Lazarová is incredible. It takes tricks from a wide variety of European filmmakers (Andrei Tarkovsky most directly) to immerse viewers in a 13th Century Europe that is rarely seen in film. There is no glamorization of life in this world; it's all ugly and rough, a place where the nobles have no better moral structure than the bandits, and everybody is in a primal fight for survival.
If the film feels cold, that's because it was. Shot in the Czech countryside in below-zero temperatures with characters in costumes that deteriorate into nothing, the world of Marketa Lazarová feels like a genuinely awful place to live, where wolves are as big a threat as the murderers riding down the road, and justice looks more like a crucifixion than a court hearing. That's the kind of overbearing threat Vláčil sells the entire film.
For all the beauty of Bedrich Batka's cinematography—and it is profoundly beautiful—the ugliness and violence of the action come to the forefront. Atrocities and bodies are piled everywhere, the horror of nature is constantly knocking at the door, and the only good in the world exists between the cracks, where your rapist becomes your lover because there's no better way. It's an unflinching and immersive ride into the past that makes it utterly clear how rough the life is these characters lead.
But again, for all that horror, Marketa Lazarová is a gorgeous film, with some of the most arresting cinematography I've ever seen. The nature photography is absolutely incredible, with extended longing shots of the snowbound landscape, accented by the minuscule presence of people and wolves. Vláčil focuses on nature and the hardships of living just next to it, making the people just shy of the beasts who thrive within the lands. The explosive choral score by Zdenek Liska melds perfectly with the visuals, giving the film a feeling of grand beauty and terrible danger.
In all facets, Marketa Lazarová is amazing, a true revelation that is just now being seen by audiences in this country. It's a difficult movie, to be sure, one that demands multiple viewings, not just for its narrative obscurity, but for its visual symbolism and beauty. It stacks up with and surpasses many of the known greats of Soviet bloc films of the time and genuinely stands with the greatest I've ever seen. I'll know more with further viewings, but for now I can say that Marketa Lazarová is a one of a kind piece of work I'm thrilled to have in my collection.
Criterion has hit another one out of the park with this Blu-ray release. Its 2.35:1/1080p image may be the best they've released all year, a brilliant transfer that gives the film every bit of care it deserves. The movie runs the gamut from nearly black to bright white and the visuals excel on all levels, with brilliant contrast throughout. Detail is sharp and fine across the frame, making this forty year old film look almost new. The only defect in the picture is a short shot in front of a fire, where the edges of the flames look a bit digitized, but given the overall superiority of the picture, that hardly takes away from the experience. The audio isn't quite as strong as the picture, but it's quite good in its own right. The lossless 1.0 PCM track sounds great, without a hint of background noise or crackle. The dialogue is always clear and the brilliant score is as bright as one could hope from a single channel mix. The dynamic range may not be that broad, but it's quite solid for what it is.
The bonus features cap off a truly fantastic package, beginning with a twenty minute documentary by cinematographer František Uldrich—"In the Web of Time"—an artfully produced long form interview with Vláčil in which he discusses his filmmaking process. Coming from an art history background, his outlook on cinema is far different than most directors and it's extremely interesting to watch and hear. The remaining features are in the form of new interviews, starting with a forty minute set of discussions with various members of the crew detailing the grueling two year shoot and all the garbage they had to go through to make the picture. It makes an old John Ford production look like a walk in the park. Next is a conversation with film historian Peter Hames, who talks about the power and impact of the film. Most interesting is the interview with Ivo Marák, the technical director who supervised the restoration, in which we see the painstaking clean-up process and the massive upgrade in quality as a result. Finally, a gallery of storyboards, a trailer, and Criterion's customary essay booklet close out the disc.
Marketa Lazarová may be a difficult film, but it's absolutely beautiful and extremely rewarding. It's a shame this is the first US release, but what a release it is. Hopefully, this phenomenal production gets the attention it deserves, because this is the kind of film that can be watched over and over to increasing enjoyment. Marketa Lazarová is one of the finest movies I've seen in a long time and I'm thankful for Criterion's superior release.
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