31 Days of Cinema, Day Nine: “Marketa Lazarová”

Early in his Toward a Philosophy of the Act, Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin writes:

Newton’s laws were valid in themselves even before Newton discovered them, and it was not this discovery that made them valid for the first time. But these truths did not exist as cognized truths—as moments participating in once-occurrent Being-as-event, and this is of essential importance, for this is what constitutes the sense of the deed that cognizes them. It would be a crude mistake to think that these eternal truths-in-themselves existed earlier, before Newton discovered them, the way America existed before Columbus discovered it. The eternity of truth cannot be contraposed to our temporality as a duration without end, for which our time is but a mere moment or segment.

Read that again closely, in case the difficulty came as a surprise. The gist of it is that gravity did not exist before Newton because it was the concept of gravity that was lacking. To state otherwise would be to deny history as, fundamentally, a process of development. This presents an ethical risk to filmic works about the past—mainly, historical fiction and biopics, in particular if they are set before the advent of film technology. Is it proper for us to impose a filmic perspective on a period of time when not even photography existed nor could be predicted? This is the type of thought that the Dogme 95 movement was created to provoke, its tight-assed pretensions notwithstanding. Besides the need for art to be creatively free in order to thrive, the only solution to this conceptual problem is likely to have one’s film be honest about its artifice and its re-presentational qualities—to make it clear to the audience that this is at best a reenactment and an imagination; that way, it isn’t a bait-and-switch.

These thoughts apply to thousands of films, but they were especially pertinent in my head during my viewing of Marketa Lazarová, which is often deemed the all-time greatest Czech film. If you know the film, you’ll understand it when I say that I’m not going to even try to parse the story now, and—as is already the case with a few of these films in my July challenge—I’ll likely write a more in-depth interpretation of it after a later second viewing. I will tell you, however, that it is a tremendous, exhausting film experience. Adapted by Frantisek Vlácil from a novel by Vladislav Vancura (which does not appear to be available in English), Marketa is set in medieval times and tells a complex story of a Christian nun—the title girl—who functions as a Helen of Troy caught between two clans and royalty, told out of chronological order, with sights and sounds that don’t always synchronize, stream-of-consciousness and other experiments. Were medieval epics as attuned to these innovations in storytelling as we are? I don’t know, as I’m not an expert on the subject, but I trust that the flashback and other plays on time have figured in storytelling from its inception, as have themes of the disjuncture between perception and “reality,” existence and thought, audio and visual cues. It would be glib to add that such formalisms are also reflective of memory and history as constructs, not unlike fiction. Nonetheless, I do not think it would be invalid if Marketa did (and I’m confident it did) exploit film to harken back to mechanisms of narrative that seem modernist but that actually have precedent in our most classic literary texts—to ensconce a present between past and future.

Some brief words on the technical aspects: The cinematography, by Bedrich Bat’ka, is in black and white, and the tones and deep contrasts that he is able to invoke between snow and foliage, sky and building, human and animal, and winter and spring accomplish what all B&W photography should strive to accomplish—to make it seem like the same images in color would not be much different. The music, by Zdenek Liska, is compared in the Criterion essay on the film to Stravinsky and Orff and rightly so. Deploying Gregorian voices, ethereal percussion and jarring strings in a neoclassicist fashion, Liska’s score is a successful microcosm of the film’s effort to adapt old ingredients to new arrangements. It will join a long list of scores of which I will scour YouTube for fragments, so I can listen to it casually. The dialogue and the very helpful title cards achieve the echelon of poetry, which is a compliment I give to an infinitesimal number of films. Most if not all of the set pieces—the pursuits between man and animal, the ambushes, the battles, the monologues, the bloody sacrifices, the dubious love scenes and their fallouts, the voice of God narrating the action—are standouts in their own right. If there is a flaw, it’s the blurred-lines sexual relationship between Marketa and her captor, which starts as a ravishing and ends as mutual romance. From today’s feminist standpoint, that’s pretty implausible. But what can you do? That’s the Middle Ages for you.

Grade: A

Tomorrow: A change in schedule. Today was a busy day, so I’ve watched the brief Je, Tu, Il, Elle instead of the epic Soldier of Orange, and I’ll watch Soldier tomorrow and review both films thereafter in a double post. A Woman Under the Influence will come the day after. Sorry for the delay, but I needed the time to recover from this doozy of a film.

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31 Days of Cinema, Day Nine: “Marketa Lazarová”

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