I had to sneak into work after hours to watch this one on a big screen. Distributors like Second Run are doing wonders in the way of DVD release of films you might otherwise never have had the chance to see. But some films make you more aware of the limitations of your laptop than others. Marketa Lazaroví¡ is on the grand scale from the opening frames. The camera dwells on a blinding snowscape fusing into a cold sky for a minute before some black specks become discernible; only when these have become wolves does it lurch into motion, tracking the sinuous loping forms across the unending white. In the laptop version, the screen is merely white, and the wolves remain specks. This does make a difference, as the sense of a vast and indifferent natural world is the cinematic keynote of the film. Throughout, human groups batter each other to smithereens, leaving isolated figures wandering, floundering in swamps, or crawling on all fours in the undergrowth of some of cinema’s most unnerving forestry. You need that feeling of everything just going on and on in every direction, on every side of the frame.
The story concerns the squabbles of neighbouring clans in a time before Christianity has successfully turned warlords into estate managers. The KozlíÂk clan are hunters, of rich travellers as much as of game. Lazar, on the other hand, is a hypocritical yeoman, happy to scavenge after the KozlíÂk boys have done their worst, but wheedlingly pious when he is caught at it. Think of my Marketa, he pleads, effectively pimping his daughter’s innocence to top KozlíÂk son Mikolí¡s. A sudden radiance illuminates the doting father’s face as we share a vision of Marketa following a peloton of dove-toting nuns up a wind-blown hill to chapel. Even the grimly determined Mikolí¡s has to look uncertainly over his shoulder in an effort to locate the mysterious light source. Whether or not he sees, as we do, Marketa extricating a dove, and an inadvertent nipple, from her bodice, remains doubtful. Back in reality, a horse, inspired in a quite different way, licks the supplicant Lazar’s bouffant headgear.
All in a day’s work for the KozlíÂk boys then, in a world they master as far as they can see. Unfortunately, however, this time they have gone too far: by raiding the caravan of a German Bishop, and abducting his son, they bring upon themselves the unwelcome attention of the King’s regional representatives. As fat old Hetman Pivo (Captain Beer) pursues the KozlíÂks, Lazar naturally does nothing to stand in his way. KozlíÂk revenge costs him dear, however, as Mikolí¡s seizes his most treasured possession, Marketa. Guerilla warfare, and mutual annihilation, with some brutal, doomed romance along the way, ensue; pretty much the way of things for the hell-bent, werewolf-descended KozlíÂk’s, but something of a journey for intending nun Marketa; from lamb of god to Czech art-house Sarah Connor.
Rhyming with the nomadic fury of the participants, the narrative method is nomadic and furious. A simple tale in its broadest strokes is skewed by narrative loops and interleaving; memories and moments of clairvoyance come out of nowhere in vertiginous dislocations of point of view. Holding it all together is exceptionally strong and coherent art direction on all fronts. Costume, in particular headwear, is the index of beast fable in this beastly world. KozlíÂk’s lupine descent seems to be spreading over him like a fungal infection: starting from his claws, the fur has gained as far as the elbows, and his wolf-eared hood is surely only the first step towards prognathous developments. Conversely, as she gazes out from the back of the sled on her way home from the convent, Marketa’s face is framed by the heart-shaped opening of a woolly white snood. She has just been offered to Christ and somehow you already know this is a world in which lambkins get roasted. The range of lighting throughout is fantastic, much of it pointed at Marketa’s receptive face. Zdení„â€ºk LiÅ¡ka’s soundtrack is curious and intense, ranging from the expected medieval plainchant to wild, incongruous outbursts of marimba. Sound in general is one of the film’s most distinctive features: every word, every movement whips back at you in a dry, staccato echo. Like bullets off armour plating, every act rebounds on you, every prayer is rebuffed. From the clattering courtyard of the KozlíÂk homestead to the depths of the immemorial forest, the landscape is not listening, and it doesn’t care.