Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ashes and Pus

In his essay included in the booklet that accompanies Criterion's release of Frantisek Vlacil's Marketa Lazarova, Tom Gunning says (among many other things, obviously), "I confess it took me four viewings before I figured out the incidents of Marketa Lazarova's plot (I am still not sure I know the names of all the characters or can fully explain their family relations)." Which, boy is that a relief. Marketa Lazarova is not a film that lends itself to easy absorption, but one doesn't like to learn that one is alone on these matters. And it's not as if the film is so utterly bewildering -- my moments of uncertainty while watching it were signaled not by thoughts of "What the hell!?" but rather "Well but wait a second." You can see the distinction, I hope. Films like Marketa Lazarova -- not that there's so very many of those -- challenge the viewer's ability to find a grip on the narrative very insidiously by not seeming to be that challenging in that regard. It's not obviously fragmented like Godard, nor is it such a naked piece of lunacy as, say, Sweet Movie (and thank Christ for that), but the logic it follows is not necessarily your logic, which, given all sorts of things, is fitting.

So the the thing to do here is to let Marketa Lazarova just happen to you, which I was eventually -- some way into it, I'll admit -- able to do. It is perhaps, therefore, not surprising that my favorite chunk of this 165 minute film was roughly the last hour. But I believe I'm getting ahead of myself here. Marketa Lazarova begins with a scene that actually establishes quite a bit of context for what follows. Set in the Czech region during the medieval era, Marketa Lazarova opens with a royal procession riding through the countryside. Two men who are not part of this procession are nearby, one, named Mikolas (Frantisek Velecky), is observing in secrecy from a cluster of tall grass, and another, named Adam (Ivan Paluch) -- a one-armed man who we will learn is Mikolas's brother -- makes some glancing contact with some of the soldiers, who regard him as a helpless peasant. This assumption helps lead to their downfall, as first Adam, then Mikolas, and then others following their lead, attack the procession, killing many, plundering all, and taking one prisoner, a young man named Christian (Vlastimil Harapes). This raiding party is part of one vast family, or at least a village of raiders that is led by one family, and ruled by their patriarch, Kozlik (Josef Kemr). Found scavenging by Mikolas among the wreckage of the decimated procession -- which was in service of the king, remember -- is Lazar (Michal Kozuch), the leader of his own, rather less aggressive clan. As Mikolas threatens Lazar's life, for trying to reap the spoils, or some of them, of his own clan's murderous work, Lazar pleads for mercy on behalf of his daughter Marketa (Magda Vasaryova), who he says would be ruined, and doomed, without him. Mikolas bends, and takes Lazar captive, for a while. More immediately important is the fact that the actions of Mikolas and his men have urged the king -- who we never see -- into retributive action, and he sends out what I guess would be called a military deployment, led by Captain "Beer" (Zdenek Rehor)(and "Beer" is a nickname, by the way), to defeat Kozlik's family. The fact that none of these three groups are notably different in kind from each other is not at all easy to lose sight of. Lazar may be less easily moved to brutality than Beer or Mikolas or Kozlik, but that's only because he's found that a lack of honor provides its own temporary rewards.

You may have noticed how nimbly I glossed over the presence of Marketa, Lazar's daughter, even though she is our titular character. Until the last section, Marketa, who is nevertheless very present, is not the central focus. For a while, she exists as a figure in vague, ethereal flashbacks, sometimes flashfowards, maybe dreams. Her father’s belief that she would be helpless without him is perhaps true – throughout the movie, she is either being made to do something, such as enter a convent, or victimized, as when she is kidnapped by Mikolas. Yet even so, she’s introduced to us with images that include this:
What is this? Does it hint at some hidden level of sinister motivation in Marketa? It would seem to initially, but finally doesn’t. This is the beginning of Marketa Lazarova’s fog of unanswerable mystery, which persists even if, on a narrative level, the film appears to scan. But throughout, Vlacil adds oddities of sound and image that made the whole thing seem distorted and otherworldly: voices echo strangely, some voices come from nowhere -- in one scene of dialogue between two characters, I wasn't sure the actors' lips were moving. Before Marketa steps forward to take part in the "present day" action, can we be sure that her scenes have actually happened? I'm going to go with "yes" on that one, simply because as the film progresses such dreamy, or nightmarish, moments do not belong to her exclusively, and the impact of some of what occurs in those scenes is clear and lasting.
The otherworldly nature of Marketa Lazarova does finally seem logical. Among other things, the film strikes me as one of the most authentic ever set in the medieval era. Authentic to me, anyway, which is no kind of bar for anyone to be proud of clearing, but even so there's an everyday quality to the grime and the brutality here, nothing ostentatiously designed about any of it. If Terry Gilliam was one of the first roughly mainstream directors to put the shit back in the Dark Ages, he still wanted you to know he'd put the shit there. Vlacil just puts the shit there. But Vlacil's great accomplishment in terms of tone and style here is achieved through the photography, on which he worked with cinematographer Bedrich Batka. Marketa Lazarova is a gorgeous film, and the black and white images are the sort that make you think the natural color reality being photographed wasn't all that colorful to begin with. We've landed on black and white from black, white, and brown, so that somehow the stylishness of black and white mixes with a realism that is then juddered off its axis. Water looks like dirty milk, and dead trees make you doubt they were ever leafy, and wolves look and behave like wolves but also call to mind demons or angels of death. There's a major character who is introduced about halfway through the film, a strange monk named Bernard (Vladimir Mensik), who has an unnatural relationship with his sheep. There's a huge number of things that Vlacil does not do with this information, to the degree that this is all close to being merely implied, but anyway at one point the sheep is killed and beheaded, not by Bernard, and its head is hurled into the woods. Vlacil shoots the head flying away from the camera, striking the ground, and bouncing and rolling down a hill. Many things are communicated, but one of the more hidden, yet obvious, is the fact that this is a grotesque, surreal, nightmarish image that did not need to be manipulated in any way to achieve that tone, short of film it in black and white, which, as I've said, is just one level of color less than we would have gotten anyway. More than anything, it reminds me of something that William H. Gass (I believe it was) said, which, to paraphrase, was that in prose a decapitation could be described with as much beauty as a flower.

That's Marketa Lazarova, in the smallest nutshell I could find. It's rich, perplexing, strange, horrifying, and graceful -- graceful in its craft, and achieving grace through the suffering it depicts. Sort of, or almost.

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