by Sam Juliano
In 1998, Czechoslovakian film critics were polled on what they considered to be the greatest film ever made in their country, and the response at the time was somewhat surprising. Forgoing the best films by Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel, the scribes annointed a relatively obscure medieval epic by Franticek Vlacil, Marketa Lazarova, a film about the desperate struggle for survival amongst the bloody savagery of the 13th century. In this dark and spectacular canvas, Vlacil, who originally studied art history and aesthetics, revealed an intense interest in the power of the poetic image that has often been compared with Tarkovsky. His taste for composition–horses against landscape, castles against the sea–often attained a Wellsian grandeur. The titles that break the film up give it the epic quality of the picturesque novel it was based on, and the violence of the film’s rapid forward tracking movements, flashbacks and flashforwards disturb both the narrative and visual convention.
Shortly after the film was shot in 1967, the director took advantage of some of the existing sets and decided to tell another story set in the same time, and with some of the same themes. The theme of Christianity vs. paganism and the distorting effects of organised religion is again the subject of Udoli vcel (Valley of the Bees) where the Czech hero is raised as a member of the Order of St. Mary of Jerusalem (the Teutonic Knights). Again, there’s a keen sense of time and place, accentuated by a sustained underpinning of austerity transcribed on a lush, classical widescreen black and white canvas, deftly negotiated by master lensman Franticek Uldrich, whose compositional eye was painterly. Still, the films are markedly different in their narrative arc, as the earlier film was an unbridled study of paganism, while Valley of the Bees is a rigid examination of the code of conduct that informs the ‘Order of St. Mary of Jerusalem,’ which first and foremost is commited to spiritual purification, which of course disenfranchises familial bonds, physical contact and materialism. The character ‘Armin von Heiden’ is cultish in his glorification of these sacrifices, while ‘Ondrej of Vikov’ (whom we first see as a young boy) is a rebel who carefully orchestrates his opposition, as an overt position would result in a violent public death. Armin develops a strong bond with Ondrej and they soon undergo physical endurance in freezing water in a scene that reveals a strong homoerotic current. When Armin refers to Ondrej as ‘my brother’ we are uncertain whether it’s a religious declaration or something more provocative. But yet another forbidden relationship develops after Ondrej leaves the order, when his stepmother Lenora make overtures, which are returned in kind.
If it’s abundantly clear that Valley of the Bees is almost western-like in it’s simple presentation of ‘one man against another’, it’s just as obvious that Vlacil masks his characters and motivations with a considerable degree of ambiguity. Hence, the central relationship is a vacillating one, where both theological and humanistic leanings, showcased by both characters are not to the point where neither can’t be ‘swayed’ by the other. This sense of overlapping and uncertainty is typical of Vlacil’s work, and in fact laudatory, as it instigates multiple interpretations. There are a number of questions as to what directions the characters will take, and Vlacil subverts the conventional conclusions one might draw from the initial appearance of Armin as the blonde-haired young man with a clear purpose, while the dark-haired Ondrej owns motives that are unclear.
The harsh and unforgiving landscape that permeated Marketa Lazarova is sustained in Valley of the Bees, which like it’s celebrated predecessor, is a meticulously textured and sonorous work, aimed at making the viewer almost taste and smell the surroundings. There are some arresting set pieces and individual shots, like a body being thrown to dogs from an overhead angle, the naked hand-clutch in the afformentioned moment of bonding, and blood oozing out from a body into a roadside puddle, and there is an eerie harshness to the proceedings, which is underlined by another discordant score by Zdenek Liska (who wrote the music for Marketa Lazarova as well). Some solo work is accompanied by a full choir, and the effect is mesmerizing. Valley of the Bees is an uncompromising vision, and it’s as bleak as any film in Vlacil’s canon, yet it’s a ravishing and often beautiful tapestry that beckons to a world where thoughts and ideals yields to the harshness of an oppressive time that allows no escape. There are no happy endings in this world.
The very fine U.K. company, Second Run, has released a superb DVD that is a full notch over the work they did on Marketa Lazarova both in resolution and brightness. This is a stunning 2:35 to 1 remastered transfer that is light years ahead of the lamentable full-screen Facets (Region 1) release we’ve had to endure the past several years. The picture control is often so pristine that one can briefly notice some shimmering. But Second Run encoded the DVD to “all-region” meaning the DVD can be played on all machines, including those here in the USA. This is the kind of DVD print you just can’t take your eyes off, and the subject here is most worthy. The Valley of the Bees is one of two masterpieces by Franticek Vlacil, released in the same year, and as such it’s a must-own, especially in this terrific edition.