In 1998, Marketa Lazarova was voted as the best Czech film of all time by a consensus of Czech critics and publicists. I haven’t seen too many Czech films, so I can’t attest to the truth of this collective opinion, but I can definitely see why this film was chosen under such an auspicious title. This could reasonably be called the Gone With the Wind of Czech films; it is epic in scope, in grandeur, and in tone, and from the looks of the resulting product, no expense was spared to make this film the ultimate in ultimate of Czechoslovakian art and expression. The film itself, set in the Middle Ages (so, yes, this has “historical epic” period piece written all over it), is the story of the titular woman, who is kidnapped by a warrior of a neighboring clan, and made to be his mistress. There’s also a great deal of subtext about the rise of Christianity in the face of paganism, just to add that extra epicness to this already grand-scale motion picture.
Now, first off, this film is in black and white, and I make special note of that because I had looked over the Book’s entry for this and somehow missed that, and I expected it to be in color. It also deserves special mention for being one of the most breathtakingly beautiful black-and-white films I’ve seen outside the English language. The film uses light to almost literally bathe scenes in shades of white and grey, and it uses its architecture, locations, costumes, set dressings, and other production value aspects to add to this lively display of shading. This was seriously nothing but a grand pleasure to look at, and the audio helped that along as well; through much of the film, a background chanting is heard, along with orchestral, reverberating music that adds an insurmountable depth to the film. The sound quality was… interesting. It wasn’t good, but neither was its poor quality a bad thing; it sounded as if the lines had been overdubbed inside a church or cathedral or some other vast, expansive space, and while it was still somewhat obviously overdubbed, the quality of it added to the epic grandeur of the film. Now, for everything that I just gushed over the film about, there is one aspect where the film, at least for me, was a modest failure, and it is unfortunately one that cannot be overlooked: the storytelling. The film is so wrapped up in its production value and trying to be as epic as possible that the story is often buried so deeply under the feet of snow or mud that lines the countryside of the film that you can barely make it out, and what story there is to be had is so drawn out and elongated that you often lose patience with the film’s attempts to lengthen or pad its own running time, and boy is it already padded enough. To say I had no idea what was happening through probably 90% of this film is to be kind, and while every bit of my animal brain wanted to be as kind to this film as it had been kind to my animal brain, my cognitive brain kept slapping myself upside my own head every 10-15 minutes to remind me that I, in fact, had no idea who was who, or what was what, or what was going on.
I wish I could give this film a higher rating; I really do. It is just absolutely beautiful to the senses, and even though I couldn’t follow the plot through much of it, I was still mesmerized by the entrancing quality of the film. But therein lies the rub; I just couldn’t follow this film to save my life. And despite its extreme prettiness to both the eyes and ears, the core of any film should be, has to be, always and forever, a great story that is well told. This story was not well told, and because of this obfuscation I can’t even tell you if it was a good one or not. I’m sure it wanted to be, but it just got lost in all the shiny that it neglected the substance. Also, due to its extreme length for what story there was, I can’t even begin to recommend this to anyone, aside from some hardcore film people that I know will be able to get through the whole thing; most if not all of the rest of the people will quickly turn it off in the first half hour, if not for the black-and-white or the subtitles, for the sheer lack of comprehension, and definitely when they catch a look at the clock and see they still have more than two hours to go. I think I’m actually being somewhat generous with my rating, but the film is a sheer beauty and I can’t overlook that. However, neither can I overlook the fact that I just could not understand what was going on, and in all likelihood, neither will you.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10