Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Marketa Lazarová (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)

Although the story of Vlacil’s film about clan rivalry in the middle ages is essentially straightforward, its whys and wherefores on a first viewing are occasionally opaque. Surprisingly, this matters little as the film’s realisation of a medieval world, shot through with mysticism, folk beliefs, and an interpenetrating paganism and christianity is so convincing that the disorientation helps to draw us into the film. It is as if we had been dropped bodily in a world we only dimly apprehend, but which is alive with portent and ancient significance. We are like the child shown gnawing on a joint of meat by the fire as the adults talk of important matters with an unknown guest. We hear and recognise the names in their talking, their voices increasingly rough with drink, and we will follow their will. What follows are notes made after a first viewing which, I hope, give a taste of the world in which the viewer is immersed and which also try to preserve that delicious state of partial comprehension that is so thoroughly involving.

The lamb of god wandered through the mud of the early spring thaw and into an encampment, where it was slaughtered and eaten; eaten even by its own shepherd while he was drunk. Bereft, he then stumbled to the hills where he followed the bleats of an escaping thief. Later he took to the tracks once again and a goat served for his needs.

This is a thoroughly elemental film, a film of wind and flame, of marshes and mud. The winter is long here. We are so long with the snow that when an hour in, Lazar announces that the thaw is coming and water drips from the melt on the rooves, we are also expectant for the tentative warmth of spring. Instead we see the cold glister of chain mail on a man’s back as he rides home. At dusk, horses’ silhouettes skitter across the thawing ground which has the sheen of mercury, a slippery bed for the rough violation of a stolen girl. Wet, claggy snow clings on cart wheels. Pied carriage dogs hold their ears alert.

Marketa’s sleeves extend to the base of her fingers, a comfort nearly as soft as the down of the dove she pulls from her breast, its feathers loosed to the wind; an offering for the devout. Alexandra offers a blood sacrifice and a necklace of beads and feathers to the skulls on the fetish tree, kisses her brother’s left arm. The seeds of the wild grasses ripen in the sunlight. A serpent watches.

The creaking of ice, the wind through stone passageways and windows, the muted hammering on an anvil, the clank of implements hanging from carts, the splitting of carcasses and the beating of hides, the thunk of stone on a head, a chain against a breast-plate, the clash of swords, bells on a sled, the splash through water and the rolling of wheels, the burning of wood, the howl of wolves. These are some of the sounds behind Zdeněk Liška’s film music.

Clear air after snow, horses and their muck, burning brands, coltsfoot and butterburr, leather and hide, warmed skin, charred meat, pine woods, a bed of leaves, marsh mud, burning tallow tapers, burning logs, stale sweat, fear, blood. These are some of the film’s smells.

Characters call out to each other and catch sight of one another across time and space. Premonitions and memories fly, land and flash into vision, as if the falcons tethered to branches had been loosed. Men and women are assailed by visions, and omens have as much bodily presence as any reality. Black beasts and deer approach. Kozlik’s antlers are bigger than branches. Man is transient as a shadow.

The air is thick with voices, arrowed from the darkness of a wood at dusk. The trees talk. Later, limbs are but logs among the twisted branches and the leaf mould. Voices are ever on the air, echoing through Straba’s delirium around the walls of Rohacek, along with cries, whip cracks and the faintest of knocks on a thick wooden door. A sister offers the warmth of fur, a brother feels the rough, thick knots of a cord garment across his shoulders.

There is much hiding here, behind scrub and lacerating thorn-thicket. A white mare struggles to escape from the marsh, leaps through the water, but cannot pull herself out from the suck of the mud, watches us, then grazes on the marsh grass as we look back over our shoulders. We are caught, like the wood mice that snuffle between apparently sleeping fingers.

On a blasted bone-strewn heath, love and certainty fought with cruelty and doubt for the issue of the children’s souls. As ever was.

May your house be filled with health and happiness. May your oxen thrive.

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