Sunday, January 19, 2020

Lambs, Maidens, and Doves in the Day's Shadow

In a land of rough edged shadow and violence, a conflict between a bishop and a nobleman wreaks havoc on the lives of a sheep fucking monk, a one armed man, a butcher girl, and a quiet maiden in 1967's Marketa Lazarová. A narrator at the beginning sullenly comments on the pointlessness of storytelling when everything seems so random and insignificant. But he grudgingly begins setting the scene as we're treated to the gorgeous, chaotic visuals of this brutal vision of the Middle Ages.

The black trees or grass against the pale landscape tends to look like feverishly scratched pencil or charcoal. The hordes of armoured men clambering through tangled forest is sometimes reminiscent of a Kurosawa film as is director František Vláčil's preference for using telephoto lenses for everything. But his camera is rarely as still or as steady as Kurosawa's and he's much fonder of closeups. In one fascinating shot, the nobleman, Lazar (Michal Kožuch), backs away as bandits enter his fort, the camera panning to follow him, and his daughter's face, Marketa Lazarová (Magda Vášáryová) herself, passes blurry across the extreme foreground. We already know of Lazar's concern for his enigmatic daughter, that she might be taken and raped, and this shot emphasises how she exists as a moral concept and also as a more complicated human specimen.

The film is deliberately difficult to follow at times, stimuli of strange sounds layered over the soundtrack--whispered chants and animal noises--combined with seemingly non-linear snatches of dialogue and events, give the film an hallucinatory quality. Yet part of the anxiety in the film's events is the sense of meaning, the idea that sins these people ought to have been wary of are now the reason for their gruesome punishments. The monk (Vladimír Menšík) is shown from a high angle while a voice, presumably God's, argues with him, reminding him that his sheep is not a woman and that it's sin to have sex with it. Yet, when the monk's captured by the bandits, he pleads with God, and rebukes the men for taking and killing the sheep he believes God sent to him.

As disorienting as much of the film is, there are moments of intense clarity and meaning. When Marketa is introduced at the beginning, it's after Lazar has been pleading for her life and chastity, telling his assailants that she's a perfect innocent. A cut to her, perhaps miles away, shows her walking through grass holding a dove tied to her chest. She innocently unlaces her bodice, exposing her breasts as she allows the bird to flee, seemingly a sign of her innocence, but the camera then pans up to a face that seems to suggest lust or sadism.

She almost looks like Klaus Kinski. Who is Marketa? An innocent girl? Is that enough to describe anyone? Maybe it is since her plight ends up being pretty much what Lazar feared. And yet, nothing is settled in this film and perspective quickly changes the significance of violence.

Marketa Lazarová is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1319

A tidy coat sufficed to warm the bean.
Important shifts have cleaned the ancient stair.
Above the jungle floating farmers lean.
Compared to oranges apples never pear.
Constructive beaks describe the nostril wind.
Receptive peaks allow the mountain slope.
Illusion tries between the ears to mend.
With hurried steeds the lancers briskly cope.
Unsteady climbs enforced a frigid step.
Accustomed bites combine to coded boards.
Entire teams convene to choose a rep.
Committee shields decide to order swords.
Reordered pizza comes in plastic state.
An ancient sauce was sold at bottom rate.

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