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Logline: In medieval times, three clans war against one other.

Review: In its native land, František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová was hailed as the greatest Czech film of all time.  Yet, in the U.S., the film remains largely unknown.  With its relatively recent release in the Criterion Collection, perhaps more film enthusiasts will be able to see this haunting masterpiece.

The 1960s is full of great films that challenge popular film conventions; films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) and Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).  In the same spirit as these other 60s masterworks, Marketa Lazarová challenges the viewer’s notions of what a film is and should be and makes the possibilities of the medium seem limitless.

Vláčil plunges the viewer into the Middle Ages, where most of the world was still vast, untamed wilderness and humans fought against the backdrop of Christianity replacing Paganism.  The film has an unmatched authenticity.  Part of the reason for this is that Vláčil took his cast and crew to the Bohemian forest for a two year shoot in which the actors had to endure the freezing cold temperatures and physical suffering of their characters.

The way in which Vláčil engages the viewer’s senses is astounding.  The striking visual compositions are matched with a remarkable sound design.  Characters’ voices seem very near even when they are visually distant.  There is so much going on in every frame of Marketa Lazarová that it would take many viewings to fully appreciate it.  The score, composed by Zdeněk Liška, is nothing short of astounding.   The masterful editing combines startling juxtapositions.  With a film that runs almost three hours in length, there never seems to be a wasted moment.

Marketa Lazarová proves that story does not need to take precedent in a film.  It is the way in which the story is told using sight and sound that is most remarkable here.  That is not to say that there is no story in Marketa Lazarová.  While it may be difficult to follow, the story has epic proportions involving a plethora of characters.  Marketa, the character for which the film was named, is a beast of burden whose life parallels that of Kristian.  I am reminded of another film with religious implications, Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.  That film’s beast of burden is a young girl named Marie whose life parallels that of a donkey named Balthazar.  In many ways, Balthazar and Marie are prisoners to humankind’s sins.  In Marketa Lazarová, Marketa and Kristian, two beautiful human beings, are shielded from the harsh realities of the world until they are inevitably plunged into humankind’s suffering.  Both characters are held captive, and fall in love with those one would least expect.

Marketa Lazarová is a revelation and a film that I can return to again and again for it is such a rich and rewarding experience.  It is a film that demands to be seen by more people.  Avant-garde and experimental by nature, its depiction of a time long ago is deeply profound, sensual, and poetic.  I am confident that there will never be another film quite like Marketa Lazarová.

Great scene: Every scene in this gorgeous film is worth noting including its remarkable opening sequence.  I love the shot of the wild dogs running across the barren landscape.