The Czech director Frantisek Vlí¡čil is best known to audiences outside his native country for his 1967 masterpiece Marketa Lazaroví¡. His following film, Valley of the Bees, is also set in the 13th century, and was made using some of the same costumes and actors as its close predecessor, although it’s far from being a sequel. It is at once a simply told tragedy and a stinging critique of ideology, oppression and the loss of free will, ostensibly during the Crusades. Filmed in the spring of 1967, but released a year later during the Prague Spring, it seems inevitable that the Soviet forces that invaded Czechoslovakia later that year would view the film as an attack on communism.
At the height of summer, in idyllic, rural Bohemia, bees buzz in and out of their honeycombs while a young boy hides away in their midst. His aristocratic father is marrying a young girl barely older than his son; when the boy, Ondřej, frightens his new mother with a macabre wedding gift, his father attacks him in a fit of rage. Instantly terrified that he may have killed his only son, he promises to dedicate Ondřej to God if his life is spared.
Forced to join the Order of the Teutonic Knights to uphold his father’s vow, Ondřej is bound by a rigid code that decries any bonds with family, forbids any contact, even visual, with women, and demands total subjugation to both God and the Order. They are violent, merciless monks who believe in a vengeful God, preferring to throw a treacherous brother to the baying hounds than practise forgiveness. They are crusaders battling for the soul of Christianity, rich in their power to sow fear and obedience in the hearts of the peasants outside their monastery walls.
There is nothing merciful about the monks, their humanity stripped away by their unquestioning devotion to dogma. Ondřej, bound to the earth rather than the heavens, is determined to escape and return home. He is pursued all the way by the fanatical, yet charismatic crusader Armin von Heiden, who prays as much to his sword as to God, and carries with him sand from the deserts outside Jerusalem where he was defeated. He genuinely, passionately believes that Ondřej’s soul can still be saved despite his treachery; but touched by madness, Armin’s idea of salvation when he finds Ondrej is truly horrific.
Vlí¡cil’s 13th-century Europe is a sparse, barren and violent place. But rather than evoking the darkness so often associated with the Middle Ages, the beautifully composed black and white cinematography is luminescent, and despite the director’s formal style, the visuals are modern, at times even abstract in their austerity. While the landscape is bleak and uninhabited, there is something poetic in the way that the rolling fields and waves crashing against the monastery’s shore are captured by František Uldrich’s camera.
While not nearly as epic in scope as Marketa Lazaroví¡ (which was named the best Czech film of all time in 1998), Valley of the Bees is a visually stunning, hypnotic and disturbing film that has managed to remain totally relevant, stylistically and politically.