Second Look

Josef Kemr as Old Kozlik in "Marketa Lazarová." (Criterion Collection / June 30, 2013)

Along with a pack of wolves, pagan totems, flying arrows and falling snow, several layers of narration weave in and out of the medieval saga "Marketa Lazarová," a movie that has been called aggressively experimental and, in a poll of critics and filmmakers, the best Czech film of all time. One of those narrative devices is the unseen choir that opens the story of feudal strife, singing a wry disclaimer: "This tale was cobbled together almost at random and barely merits praise."

That self-reflexive assertion suits the 1967 movie's modernist slant but couldn't be less true of the production itself, which was anything but random. With few, if any, budgetary constraints — the Czech industry was thriving — director Frantisek Vlacil took his cast and crew to the Bohemian Forest for a two-year shoot, aiming to create not just a vision of the 13th century but a lived-in experience of it.

Avoiding contemporary manufacturing methods as much as possible, he insisted on handmade clothing and props, dressing and equipping the extras with the same attention to detail as the lead performers. The self-taught Vlacil — who aligned himself with no particular school of cinema and called Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson "my three loves" — was determined to transcend costumey historical enactment by creating an immersive period work, a present-tense depiction of the past. The primacy of the moment is what mattered to him, not exposition.

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With its sudden shifts in perspective, fractured chronology and avant-garde sound design, "Marketa Lazarová" is often disorienting, and thrillingly so. For a first-time viewer of the film — which Criterion Collection has brought to the U.S. home-video market in a remastered 4K-resolution edition — it's heartening to learn that even scholars of Czech cinema have yet to sort out every who, what and why. Plot mechanics may grow clearer with repeated viewings, yet the chief reason to return to the film is not to "figure it out" but to submit once again to the visceral poetry of its black-and-white images.

The movie is based on a 1931 novel by Vladislav Vancura that itself challenged conventional historical writing. (Its first English translation is due this year from Twisted Spoon Press.) Vlacil made his actors read the book five times, according to Ivan Paluch, who played a one-armed marauder named Adam.

In an interview for the Criterion release, Paluch recalls that the novel's peculiar language seeped into off-screen conversations. Vancura, executed in 1942 by the Nazi SS, was a stylist whom some have compared to James Joyce; novelist Milan Kundera said he used "a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved."

But for all its emphasis on visual language, "Marketa Lazarová" is not a work of abstraction without an organizing scheme. Vlacil helps viewers navigate the symphonic mix with chapter-heading intertitles and a sparingly used narrator, who sounds mildly amused and might or might not be God.

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The story's basic conflict, concerning two feudal clans and a group of Saxon knights, is populated with vividly drawn characters. The 15-year-old title character, whose highwayman father has promised her to a convent, is the virginal nucleus in the churn of enchantment and combat, thieving and sex. Marketa's path is diverted from the sisterhood when she's captured by Adam's brother Mikolas, played with feral magnetism by the untrained actor Frantisek Velecky. Against the patriarchal odds, there's an empowering trajectory to her ordeal.

Given the length of time they worked together in a remote setting, it's not surprising that the cast members interviewed for the DVD speak of the project as an important and indelible chapter in their lives. Magda Vasaryova, a newcomer to the screen when Vlacil chose her for Marketa, attests to the ferocity with which the director guarded her innocence during the making of the film, as do two of her male costars.

They speak too of his meticulous, lengthy setup of shots, noting that many a day's work yielded only a couple of minutes of usable footage (the movie is nearly three hours long). Cinematographer Bedrich Batka's endlessly inventive camera work is never a matter of flash for flash's sake but rather an exhilarating way into the thick of battle or the natural world.

The film is alive with the textures of grass and bark and stone and with the leathers, fabrics and armor that were scrupulously researched and handcrafted. Such details as a primitive crucifix give form to one of the story's most powerful themes: not just the clash between paganism and Christianity but their interplay. Dynamic set pieces amplify the material's brutality and sensuousness — key among them the "madman's soliloquy" of a soldier deranged by war and an incestuous encounter under the summer sky.

In the politically charged late 1960s, Vlacil's fever dream of the Middle Ages probably didn't hit the all-important satirical nerve for international audiences. Perhaps, with the choral disclaimer at the beginning of the film, he was anticipating his movie's lukewarm response. It would be more than 30 years after its release and a year before his death that "Marketa Lazarová" claimed the top spot in that survey of Czech critics. At that point he had enjoyed a career resurgence after being silenced for much of the '70s, when Communist authorities prevented him from making features.

But "Marketa" is his most radical stylistic statement. In 2013, it looks like a robust masterwork of timeless vintage, a story of primal folly and longing as humans, in their climb out of the muck, devise ways to worship, to love and to kill.

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