(Czech, 1967, František Vláčil, director; starring Magda Vášáryová as Marketa)
I finally got in the right mood to fire this sucker up. Watching this film, I sensed its greatness, although I was barely able to follow the narrative. No...”although” is not right. I sensed its greatness because I had such difficulty following the narrative.
I have a hypothesis. It involves idiomatic head space and the “fields” of interaction. How minds are configured, generally, in a given era. And how the ability to communicate is tied to the common mentality. Yes, we can read Shakespeare or Augustine, and from our century, we can understand what is written. But what if we were transported back in time? Would the face-to-face encounters allow us to really “get” what is being said to us? Would we read the body language of a distant era? Those gestures pregnant with subtle shadings? What I'm trying to describe is similar to culture shock nowadays. Say, you somehow get plopped down into Mongolia. The organic, innate forms of meaning and how they are sent out to other brains are, to a certain extent, connected to a given geographical culture (I surmise this, with unwarranted, faux-intellectual confidence). And I think that phenomenon would be magnified several fold if the distance were temporal rather than or in addition to the cultural. Time wires us human beings up in collective idiosyncrasies.
The 2008 HBO miniseries JOHN ADAMS, staring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, was impressive. I enjoyed it, thought it was interesting and well done. But when I think more about it, I realize how little imagination went into it. Seemingly, no effort went into creating the weirdness that would impact viewers “eavesdropping” on such a different, alien era. It was more like present types were plucked from our normality and plopped into cool costumes and recorded events. We are not presented with an attempt to infuse the roles with imagined odd brain-waves. The gestures, the glances, the expressions – the “fields” of interactive space – are not, in the miniseries, conveyed with an adequate (imagined) eccentricity peculiar to the late 18th century and early 19th.
Heck, if you're my age, let's zoom back just 40 years. To high school. Yeah, you'd have no problem with the conversations, but I assert that the general ambiance would seem “off”. Perhaps even dream-like.
Quoting Wikipedia's succinct summary, MARKETA LAZAROVÁ “takes place in the Middle Ages, and tells the story of a daughter of a feudal lord who is kidnapped by neighbouring robber knights and becomes a mistress of one of them.” Also from that source, the film “was voted the all-time best Czech movie in a prestigious 1998 poll of Czech film critics and publicists.” The historical background is shadowed with subtle aspects of the conflict between Christianity and Paganism. The foreground has to do with rival clans in conflict with the regional king and his captain, who seeks to bring those clans under his firm control.
With this film, the suspension of disbelief is immediate, thorough, and hypnotic. Even the landscapes (mostly snowscapes) strike the viewer with an uncanny force: it's as if these barren fields, reedy marshes, and ancient forests would not be found today anywhere. The scenic elements are imbued with a terrible sublimity, a harsh yet somehow mystical significance. And the costumes are so wild-and-woolly that authenticity appears to have been woven into them.
The film opens with a voice-over to set the stage, to set the feel. It is wonderfully poetic. Like only Eastern Europeans can be. Then, we must wend our way through the action and the dialog that is, at least for me, almost nonlinear and quite bizarre. The whole movie seemed like a fascinating non sequitur. Told in vignettes, the narrative sort of hop-skips between cause and effect. Yes, one can discern a vague story-flow. But it's more impressionistic than logical. More lived-in than acted. And that lived-in aspect is what made the greatest impact on me.
During the whole thing, I had the unsettling sense that if I had been transported back to that time, into those circumstances, I would be hopelessly lost. And let's say I went back there with a working knowledge of the Czech language, even old Czech. I would not know how to carry on a conversation with any of those characters. In the movie, grunts, grimaces, and crazy guffaws seem to carry as much vital information as words. Those insane hoarse belly laughs! They don't seem connected to the dialog for which they are the ostensible reactions! Marvelous and head-spinning. And much of the communication takes place non-verbally, via the oddest facial expressions and tilts of the eye.
We are dealing here with actors inhabiting 750-year-old minds. And oh my gosh!...all that hysterical campfire laughter! I should also mention the musical soundtrack: it is alternately evocative, stirring, and down-right disconcerting.
I'll leave you with a few choice exchanges:
--“Where did you see the regiment?”
--“Half a day away.”
--“What do you mean?”
--“The marshes are frozen.”
--“Butterbur is a healer.”
--“A sincere mind does not seek words.”
--“A bird's breast weighs heavily on the knight's heart.”