In Memory Of Our Pagan Past or A Short Cinematic Autobiography Of The Author
I speak for myself here, but I’m sure it will apply to many ardent film viewers that there are movies which rearrange the way you think about film. They often correlate with different moments in your life; I remember seeing Mean Streets and Badlands in my very early teens and being in awe of the seemingly new grammar of film I was watching. Later, when I first saw Videodrome and Eraserhead, their completely alien qualities threw me deeper into the cinematic murk. Apocalypse Now (hands down my favourite film) lifted me to some film nirvana, where something can be so thunderously epic and intimate simultaneously. Each one, and many more besides, altered the way I viewed film.
One side-effect of this is that the more films you watch and the older you get, the less these experiences happen. We become more and more attuned to film styles and structures, to the point where we can often second guess the filmmaker. We spot and interpret styles, we relate one film to another, we decode and peel away the myth. It can be somewhat tragically said that we are ruined by our passion to watch films, by our familiarity with them; we no longer experience the shock of the new, but I suppose that’s the price we must pay for being film lovers.
Of course now that we rarely feel this head-spinning, perception-changing effect when we occasionally do, it’s all the sweeter. Hunger did it to me most recently, but the truest pleasure of this form is from an old film that passed you by and then when viewed makes you reassess all your self-proclaimed film ‘knowledge’.
Marketa Lazarová did that to me.
It’s refreshing to watch a film with no expectation. Knowledge, as previously mentioned, can strip a film of certain qualities. All I knew about the film when I first sat down to watch it was its medieval setting and the often stated fact that it was voted the best Czech movie of all time, and admittedly not being an expert on Czech cinema, this meant very little to me. It is a film which deals with levels of conflict, an individual’s conflict with faith, the conflict between lovers, between families, between kingdoms and finally, overarching the entire film, the conflict between religions, between paganism and Christianity, between the savage and the civilised…a term that becomes increasingly redundant as the film progresses.
As a narrative, it seems somewhat pointless to describe Marketa Lazarová; it would be like writing down how to drive a car, a process that only becomes explicable in practice. Not that the film is plotless; it’s just that it isn’t as defining an element as it is to the modern films we’re most regularly exposed to. This is one of the central reasons that it’s such a perception-altering film; the plot is a structure with which to contain the themes of the film rather than a vehicle solely for storytelling.
The narrative is malleable, it bends and twists and flickers out, only to reappear scenes later; it is corrupted, far from our expected Hollywood sense of cause and effect. Most importantly the film is a magnet to our cultural and moral compasses; it sends us sprawling into a swamp of self-doubt. It’s something we rarely notice when the needle is pointing comfortably in the expected direction. For example, the characters in the majority of western movies make decisions in a manner that is recognisable as coming from that vast but rather un-mappable area we term our ‘values’. People act out of love or desire or desperation, they embark on and usually complete emotive journeys, good guys make brave choices because they are good guys, bad guys make horrific decisions because they are bad guys, they do what is, at an almost subconscious cultural level, what we ‘understand’. In Marketa Lazarová this does not exist. The characters make decisions based on their time and place, not on our time and place. It’s something that’s best described in an excellent review by Peter Hames where with regard to director František Vlácil he claims that ‘his attempts to see historical periods, including the post-war years, in terms of their own values and contradictions, is still rarely attempted’.
This is a quality which takes us beyond praise for merely good period detail; Vlácil, in the case of Marketa Lazarová, could be called a ‘method director’. The cast and crew lived for two years in the Sumava forest where filming took place, dressed in period clothing, eating authentic food, constructing their sets using traditional methods, the film is spoken in historically accurate dialogue.
As any serious examination of the external must lead to the internal and vice versa, Marketa Lazarová is as much a psychological exploration of the period as a physical one. It’s defined by the morals of kings and peasants, of bandits and hunters, by brutality and the subjection of gender. This moral archaeology makes the personal conflicts of the film hard to relate to: why are these people making decisions that are irrational to us? Because they’re not us, and after several viewings we come to a disturbing conclusion…we were once them. It’s that fine line, that one power failure, that one food shortage, those pumps dry of petrol, that threat to our loved ones, away from us.
Relentlessly these psychological explorations throw a wider net, even over the film’s largest conflicts, between faiths, between Christianity and Paganism. The osmotic quality of Christianity is revealed, where it uses the structure and symbolism of the pagan faith before it on which to base itself, where the Horned God becomes Lucifer and fertility deities become ichthyses and in return green men spy on us from chapel roofs.
All the film’s characters straddle the vague line between faiths. A monk absurdly cradles the head of a lamb as a symbol of the new Christ and the old zoolatry, and more universally between man and nature, a place where no character in Marketa Lazarová is far off; they hold an uneasy truce with nature, they’re watched by wolves in the snow.