The work of director František Vláčil is an often-fascinating look at the futility and miserable existence of life. His most prominent works follow unruly, violent heroes looking to survive within the cold Middle Ages. A real trendsetter in that specific vein of filmmaking, but it seems even his message is best contained in a shorter, much more concise storytelling experience. Marketa Lazarova may not sound like an appealing film whatsoever, but its beauty comes in the form of its direction.
Consisting of a loosely connected story that spans a period of time in the Middle Ages, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact message and story of Marketa Lazarova in its entirety. There are snippets of genius hidden among some more meandering scenes that feel like they’re going nowhere at all. As ever, the direction of Vláčil is an impressive endeavour that manages to bring some visually stunning direction into a period of time where the simplest forms of direction were still under development. To say that Vláčil is an innovator of his time period is an understatement, and his craftsmanship behind the camera is truly remarkable.
It’s a shame then that this incredible direction feels more or less wasted on a story that simply cannot capture the same resonant features and plot developments as Valley of the Bees. His clearer message and more forthright approach to his characters is much better developed in that, and his tight narrative structure strengthens his direction. Ultimately then, the biggest weakness of Marketa Lazarova is in fact the structure itself. For all his impressive direction, it boils down to a series of interesting camera shots and beautifully vast landscapes, masquerading as something deeper.
None of the performances stand out either, drowned out by the verbose and often daunting challenge of trying to best the director’s prominence. With no performance to pinpoint and dissect, it becomes a film that relies on a chorus of individual performances. Some, sadly, blend together with one another in tremendously unfortunate fashion. But the performances that truly stand out are there, you’d best believe they’re great pieces of film. Not as Earth shattering as the tighter cast of Valley of the Bees, nor as strong as contemporary pieces that attempt to work through similar themes.
Instead of performances, Marketa Lazarova instead depends on its direction, its writing and its cinematography. Each come into their own with remarkable results, specifically the fine efforts of cinematographer Bedrich Bakta. One of the few films Bakta ever worked on, he can be credited with some truly remarkable results here, and his pairing with Vláčil is a worthy partnership that leads to some beautiful results. Engrossing shots of divine intervention, luscious landscapes and focused character interactions are just the tip of the iceberg for what Bakta and Vláčil’s partnership brings to the table.
There are times, though, throughout the lengthy trial of Marketa Lazarova, where it feels like a waste. Every praise I can give the movie eventually works its way into the largest pitfall of all, the lack of a consciously enjoyable narrative. Paying attention at times feels futile, given that the film will jump from inconclusive story to other random pieces of the narrative. A beautiful art feature, if you could call it such, but the lack of conclusions will leave certain audiences reeling for closure on what is a very good-looking piece of film.
Often cited as the greatest Czech film of all time, here’s hoping for a lovely new Blu-Ray of Marketa Lazarova from geek show favourites, Second Run, soon.