The 1967 Czech film 'Marketa Lazarová' is a demanding and often times opaque film that, in addition to the intimidating barrier created by its age, language and the fact that it was shot in black and white, may help to explain why a film named the greatest Czech film ever made failed to have the kind of cultural penetration in the United States enjoyed by the films of, say, Fellini, Truffaut or Kurosawa.
Some of that could certainly be the fact that its director, František Vlácil, though highly praised during his time, never seemed to find a similar traction with audiences outside his own country, or the film critics and scholars interested in his body of work – especially the portion deemed greatest Czech film ever made. So it falls on Criterion, then, to grant this incredible film a new, wider audience with the help of a truly astonishing 4K remastering to show off the amazing storytelling prowess of its director.
Based on a highly acclaimed novel of the same name from Czech author Vladislav Van?ura, which was first published in 1931, 'Marketa Lazarová' tells a sweeping tale of clans around the 14th century – though the novel never stated exactly what century it was, intimating instead the period was simply the middle ages – who are not only caught in an ever-escalating and bitter conflict with one another, but also with their beliefs, as the story also depicts the onset of Christianity and the uproar that belief system caused amongst the pagans in the area and of the time.
A first time viewer might be surprised to find out, after watching the rather mystifying opening sequence, 'Marketa Lazarová' actually contains a fairly simple story; there's nothing too baffling in regard to the actual plot. But, in many ways, and for the betterment of the movie, the plot comes second to the way in which everything is depicted. And as proof of his immense directorial prowess, Vlácil wisely allows the story to take a backseat to the sumptuousness of his filmmaking, focusing on visual and sound elements to create a unique sense of place and time and experience, rather than relying on a traditional narrative model to tell what is essentially a historical epic.
Although there is a narrator, and each segment of the film is introduced as though it were a chapter in a book, or scene in a play, there is no real introduction to the characters, their locale or their circumstances; it's all just thrust upon the viewer in great heaps of deliberately disorienting information, jump cuts, exotic camera movements, and possibly what is the film's most effective aspect: it's use of sound. As mentioned above, the story is introduced by a narrator, who speaks over the other sounds of the film in the manner most filmgoers are used to, but as characters are introduced, and their long dialogue-free segments gradually give way to actual conversation, the sound design remains practically unchanged. Whether they are off in the distance or positioned to look directly in the camera, the actors' voices sound practically the same – as though they are speaking with the same directness and clarity as the narrator.
This is a small, but interesting bit of Vlácil's filmmaking process here, and as a result (along with the distinctive cinematography and stylized editing), 'Marketa Lazarová' enjoys being labeled as something of an experimental film. And while this label is certainly appropriate, Vlácil's grasp on both the story at the film's heart and the filmmaking required to pull the techniques off never clash or threaten to overwhelm the other; it's all perfectly balanced.
Obviously, with a film of this style and magnitude, the risk of it becoming solely a showcase for the director's artistic whims and flights of fancy is quite great, but Vlácil deftly demonstrates the opposite; he knows how to use his actors to their fullest extent and doesn't sacrifice their performances for the sake of his craft. Here, an incredibly young Magda Vášáryová portrays the film's titular character, an innocent young woman with long flaxen hair who has been promised to God by her father, but instead finds herself a victim of the inter-clan dispute and somehow, after an undisclosed amount of time has passed, manages to realize an unlikely affection and love for her captor and assailant, and eventually discovers the power of independence.
The other players, meanwhile, seem to shed any semblance or relationship they may have had to the modern world to become completely and convincingly a part of the world Vlácil is attempting to re-create. Characters look ragged, world-weary and hardened by years toiling to sustain themselves through harsh Czech winters, battling others in the region or just fighting a losing battle against the rigors of everyday life during that time period. The result, then, is a film that shatters the conventions of what a historical epic should be and instead of romanticizing the period and the life as something resembling some Hobbit-like idyll, 'Marketa Lazarová' practically steps into a time machine and presents the tumultuous and unforgiving goings-on in a documentary-like fashion.
All of this adds up to a mesmerizing film that is as much a work of art as it is a consummate example of how to handle an adaptation. As should most often be the case, the novel serves as a springboard of sorts, an inspiration for the skill and invention behind the director's intention with the film. In this case Vlácil not only challenges the conventions of what a historical epic should be, but also disrupts the standards of narrative storytelling by placing an emphasis on creating an experience unlike anything else.
For anyone who hasn't experienced 'Marketa Lazarová,' this is welll worth your time; and for those who have seen it before, this Criterion may be your chance to experience it in the best possible condition.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Marketa Lazarová' comes from Criterion as a single 50GB Blu-ray in the standard clear Criterion keepcase numbered 661 on the spine. Highlighting the sumptuous black and white photography of the film is the new artwork on the sleeve, which combines two of the more powerful shots of the movie. Inside is a magnificent 40-page booklet that includes essays from film scholar Tom Gunning and translator Alex Zucker. There is also an interview with the film's director, František Vlácil, which was done in 1969. Naturally, there are no previews on the disc, as the film will automatically jump to the top menu upon being inserted into your player. As a side note, this edition also features a new English subtitle translation, so it will be interesting to see if anyone who's seen the film previously will find that certain elements from the film have been altered or enhanced, as a result.
In addition to the prestige 'Marketa Lazarová' brings with it from its native country, a significant amount of the appeal of this Criterion Blu-ray comes from the extensive work that was done to restore the film. And the end result of that labor is one of the most astonishing restorations in recent memory. The 4K digital film transfer not only cleans up decades worth of damage and lingering residue, but it also creates a much sharper image that is so richly detailed and clear it contradicts the age of the movie.
This is a black and white movie that has many lengthy portions taking place in open fields covered in snow, set against an overcast sky, and yet, with this transfer, there is still an incredible amount of depth in the foreground and background, despite so many natural elements seemingly in collusion to produce as flat an image as possible. The contrast is very high throughout, which is one of the reasons the picture has so much depth. Characters are very distinct against any background, and there is an excellent amount of gradation between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks. The gradation is so superb, in fact, that even in very dark scenes, there is plenty of detail present in the actor's faces, their elaborate costumes and even certain textural elements in the background.
As mentioned above, the image is also richly detailed. There is an abundance of fine detail on display that doesn't just look astonishing in terms of film quality, but it also makes the haggard look of so many of these actors feel even more authentic and believable, and enhances the quasi-documentary aspect of the film. Textures in buildings and clothing are also incredible to look at and there is an astonishing amount of detail to take in from one scene to the next (a highlight and superb example of the level of detail in the film is how easily it would be to count the individual links in the chainmail worn by several of the characters).
While the image undoubtedly looks better than it has in ages, there are a few instances of slight screen flicker and some smudges that still remain – either because the restoration process was unable to remove them, or because it would have altered the finished product too much from its source. Either way, this is a remarkable restoration that gives a very visually interesting movie the presentation it's always deserved.
'Marketa Lazarová' relies as heavily on its bombastic, sometimes overwhelming score, sound effects and interesting use of recorded dialogue, as it does on the visual component of its storytelling, and I'm pleased to say that this Blu-ray boasts an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that brings with it far more depth and range than would be expected from a track of this kind and as old.
Early on, the mix does a fantastic job of bringing the viewer into the film via a mostly flat narration, which then opens up into a surprisingly wide spectrum of elements that come together to enhance the film's non-visual atmosphere. Dialogue – which is very sparse early on, but becomes much more prevalent later on in the film – is very easy to hear, and every actor's voice is distinct and different from those around him or her, which helps non-Czech speakers to better distinguish who is speaking at a particular moment, as dialogue is often times wrapped over multiple cuts and transitions, allowing the film to progress without becoming a series of two-shot conversations.
Most impressive, however, is the overall balance that's on display in this mix. There are often times several elements rushing for the same outlet, and yet they never feel as though they are competing against one another. In fact, the atmospheric effects, dialogue and score all work in perfect harmony to compliment one another and blend to make a single, distinct listening experience that is remarkably free from scratches, hissing or pitch in the actors voices or other key sound elements.
Initially, it's easy to understand why 'Marketa Lazarová' has been described as a difficult film, but when taken into consideration with the other, far more prestigious mark as the greatest Czech film ever made, the latter certainly wins out. Admittedly, the early segments of the film can be complex, as the unorthodox narrative and filmmaking techniques are not what many viewers will likely be familiar with, but as the story progresses it will no doubt captivate those who've committed themselves to the picture. This is another stellar release from Criterion with an outstanding image and wonderful sound, that's all backed up by some fascinating special features, which lend greater understanding and appreciation of a truly remarkable piece of work. Highly recommended.