Saturday 26 July 2014

1,001 Films: "Marketa Lazarova" (1967)

For some reason - countercultural affinity? A desire to get away from the clean lines of consumerism, and re-engage with the mud and blood of history? A satirical attempt to tie the tyrannies of the moment with what had gone before? - a new medievalism swept through the arthouse cinema of the 1950s and 60s, of which the most prominent examples remain Bergman's The Seventh Seal, the tangled Polish artefact known as The Saragossa Manuscript and the properly byzantine epic Marketa Lazarova, which somehow survived the rigours of Czech state censorship to emerge as among the country's best-loved features. 

In part, that may be down to the fact that it's borderline incomprehensible - or, at least, not easily read. Like the current TV hit Game of Thrones - which similarly clings to women's breasts as fixed reference points in a bloodily unstable, chaotic universe - it would appear to be a tale of squabbling clans in a snowy, godforsaken backwater, interrupted by verbose chapter headings that bear scant relation to what we're about to see, and narration that frequently drifts away from the images director Frantisek Vlacil deigns to put before us. 

Somewhere in the middle of it all is the attempt of a father to protect the virtue of the daughter enshrined in the title - her face the only one here unspecked by dirt or facial hair - though that virtue often appears the only thing at stake, and one suspects its survival at long odds may be the reason a film otherwise defined by grisly violence, trippy, modish nudity and a general air of grubbiness dodged the censor's scissors. Vacil at least ensures it looks like something significant, putting to work all the tricks the cinema had discovered for itself in the preceding years (handheld, distortion lenses, freeze-frames) and which might just have made this history come alive again - if you didn't badly need a scholar of said history sitting next to you to point out, at almost every juncture, just what exactly is going on.

Marketa Lazarova is available on DVD through Second Run.

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