During a snowy medieval winter, two Czech families, the Kozlíks and the Lazars, become embroiled in a feud that quickly escalates into violence. Among its most innocent victims is Lord Lazar’s (Michal Kozuch) daughter Marketa (Magda Vásáryová), a young woman who plans to become a nun but is instead seized by one of the Kozlík brothers, Mikoláš (Frantisek Velecký), as “payment” for sparing her father’s life. Her situation, like that of everyone else involved, grows increasingly painful and complicated as things spiral out of control.
Frantisek Vlácil’s 1967 film Marketa Lazarová opens with a note: “This tale was cobbled together almost at random and hardly merits praise.” Whether that’s self-deprecation, false modesty or something else entirely, it might (if true) help to explain why I found it rather difficult to follow the finer points of the story and even to keep track of the characters and their relationships with one another. Some of the blame must fall on me, of course, but despite my best efforts, there were quite a few times when I more or less gave up on trying to understand what, exactly, was happening on the screen in front of me.
Fortunately, the style and atmosphere of the film are enough to carry it. Vlácil employs a number of interesting techniques, including freeze frames, flashbacks intercut with other scenes, lengthy “chapter titles” (which do help to clarify some episodes) and, at one point, an unseen narrator — God, possibly? — who converses with an onscreen character. He also makes excellent use of cross-cutting during some particularly intense moments, with the audio carrying over from one section to comment on the other. The choral music on the soundtrack is highly effective as well, haunting and ominous, and the black and white cinematography is excellent. More over, for all of these artistic flourishes, Marketa Lazarová‘s medieval world feels largely authentic and natural (though I’m certainly no expert on the period).
Maybe it’s appropriate that I found the film hard to follow, because this world can be incomprehensible to Marketa and some of the other characters. Although it’s occasionally beautiful and dreamlike, it’s more often brutal and nightmarish, full of conflict. “Love fought with cruelty, and certainty with doubt, for their souls,” the narrator says at the end. There’s so much going on, so many diverse elements doing battle with each other — Christianity and paganism, kings and their subjects, men and women, humans and animals — that I think it would be impossible to take it all in on a first viewing, even if I had grasped the story completely.
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.