“We may not be certain of how to think of František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967), because it’s so new to us,” begins Michael Atkinson at Sundance Now. “A muscular, formally experimental, nearly-three-hour epic about warring medieval clans in the wolf-stalked Mitteleuropan winterlands that just happens to be almost fifty years old, Vlacil’s film was virtually ignored even in his native Czechoslovakia when it was first released…. Eventually, in 1998, after Communism’s fall cleared the cultural air, Vlacil’s film was voted by Czech critics and filmmakers to be the nation’s greatest film, its Gone with the Wind—ahead of anything by Miloš Forman, Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm, etc.” And now, “the film enters the mainstream, restored and Criterionized on Blu-ray and available to everyone everywhere, so that we can finally talk about where it belongs, and whether it changes how we think of the sine wave of postwar film history. I think it certainly should. Despite my reluctance to loosen my grip on Němec’s lean and mean Diamonds of the Night (1964) as my favorite all-time Czech film, I’m open to accepting Lazarová as that fecund region’s greatest—it’s that inventive, that huge, that pungent, that startling.”
“Though it emerged at the height of what came to be known as the Czech New Wave, this 1967 film stands as something rare not just amid the anarchic vulgarity of Daisies or the emotional naïveté of Loves of a Blonde,” writes Jordan Cronk in Slant, “but also among the greater cinematic landscape of the period. What this film is… is something stranger, something paradoxical and altogether original: an intimate epic, a tangible hallucination, a visceral symphony, and, perhaps most affectingly, a beautiful display of brutality.”
Suggesting that the film is its own best introduction, Criterion has posted the first three and a half minutes:
“Vláčil adapted his labor of love from a 1931 novel by Vladislav Vančura (1891–1942), an expressionist Czech writer, avant-garde activist, independent filmmaker, and (per the movie’s credits) ‘people’s artist,'” notes J. Hoberman in an entry for the New York Review of Books:
Vančura’s Marketa Lazarová is a mock epic, depicting the savage feud between two rival brigand families, the pagan Kozlíks and nominally Christian Lazars, in the wilds of medieval Bohemia. Vančura was an almost untranslatable master of word play, and here invented a new Czech idiom, at once modernist and archaic, to create, in effect, a new shared geneology. The Czech writer and film historian Josef Škvorecký called Vančura’s lusty yarn a “novel of momentous importance in the history of Czech literature.” Evidently, the novel also had much to say to the young, multinational state that was interwar Czechoslovakia; despite its avant-garde underpinnings, it was his most popular and commercially successful work.
Vláčil’s film treatment is more universal. Sumptuously black and white, Marketa Lazarová unfurls in widescreen panorama, accompanied by the music of keening chorales, tolling bells, and a constant, subliminal muttering. The resulting art-house spectacular owes something to the stark medieval mise-en-scène of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and somewhat more to the ferocious sweep of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
“Vančura is an unsung giant of European literature, having transformed the novel in Czech as radically and creatively as James Joyce and other modernist authors did in their languages,” writes Alex Zucker in an essay on the novel for Criterion. “In his art and politics alike, Vančura was a man of the left, though he never ceased to seek—and find—his own way of expression, unfettered by dogma, tireless in pushing and questioning boundaries.”
Also writing for Criterion is Tom Gunning: “I confess it took me four viewings before I figured out the incidents of Marketa Lazarová’s plot (I am still not sure I know the names of all the characters or can fully explain their family relations). But if elements that most films strive to make clear remain obscure here, it is not because something is lacking. This is a film of excess: so much to see and hear, so many textures and shapes crying out for our attention, that simply tracing the story line can seem a waste of time. We may not understand the motivation for every action or exactly how incidents fit together, but we never lose our involvement in this richly bizarre world. The presence of animals and plants, the textures of stone and tree bark, of snow and marsh water, cling to us as we watch, often overriding the narrative.”
Which Sam Adams helpfully summarizes for us at the AV Club: “It boils down, after some substantial reducing, to a feud between a traveling party of German nobles and a Czech bandit clan, including the feral Mikolaš and his one-armed brother, Adam. Caught between them, seeking to profit from but willing to forge a firm alliance with neither, is the merchant Lazar and his daughter, Marketa, who, despite her titular prominence, takes a long time to come to the center of the story. After Lazar beats Mikolaš, the bandits abduct Marketa and Mikolaš rapes her, which doesn’t prevent the much-abused girl from falling in love with him all the same. This part of the plot is intensely problematic to contemporary eyes, even more so than in 1967, but then Marketa isn’t exactly a liberated woman. Though actress Magda Vášárovyá (later a presidential candidate) is an angelic beauty, her eyes are dull and unfocused, showing little more intelligence than an animal’s, which is of a piece with the movie’s utterly pessimistic view of human nature.”
An interview with Magda Vášáryová,
who plays the title role
“This isn’t the first film from František Vláčil to get a disc release in the U.S.,” notes Sean Axmaker, writing for TCM. “Facets previously released The White Dove (1960), Valley of the Bees (1968), and Adelheid (1970) on DVD (all now out of print [though we should note that Second Run has released Lazarová, Valley, Adelheid, and Sentiment (2003) as Region 2 DVDs])—but it is the first to get such loving treatment and attention… Released on single-disc Blu-ray and two-disc DVD, in Czech and German with English subtitles, transferred from a 4K digital restoration made from the original camera negative and a fine grain print. It looks, in a word, stunning.”
“While I usually promote the idea one should go into films knowing as little as possible, Marketa Lazarová certainly stands as a major exceptions to that rule.” Peter Labuza presents a primer at the Film Stage. Bill Ryan suggests that the film is “one of the most authentic ever set in the medieval era…. It’s rich, perplexing, strange, horrifying, and graceful.” More at Critics Round Up.
Updates, 3/1: “By now, this burly, seething musk ox of a movie, arguably the most convincing film about the Middle Ages ever made, should be on everyone’s tongue,” argues Michael Atkinson, revisiting Marketa Lazarová for the Voice. “Is it the best Czech film? Maybe—at the very least it’ll rewrite your ideas of what the Eastern Bloc New Waves were capable of, and obliterate any reservations you might harbor about the potential veracity and edgy artfulness of historical epics.”
Jordan Cronk for Slant: “Though it emerged at the height of what came to be known as the Czech New Wave, this 1967 film stands as something rare not just amid the anarchic vulgarity of Daisies or the emotional naïveté of Loves of a Blonde, but also among the greater cinematic landscape of the period. What this film is—along with being, yes, random, free, and rhapsodic—is something stranger, something paradoxical and altogether original: an intimate epic, a tangible hallucination, a visceral symphony, and, perhaps most affectingly, a beautiful display of brutality.”