František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967) is a virtual terra incognita. Thirty years after its release, it was named overwhelmingly by a poll of Czech critics and filmmakers as the best movie ever produced in Czechoslovakia, yet it remains little known outside its native land. Even as national epics go, Marketa Lazarová is unusually off-putting to outsiders. Violent and anti-heroic, the movie opens on a note of mordant self-deprecation (“This tale was cobbled together and hardly merits praise”) and goes on to represent thirteenth-century Bohemia as a backwater of Conan the Barbarian’s Hyperborean Age—the province of halfwits, rapists, and brutes. Aside from repeated, if intermittent, screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (and a relatively recent Vláčil retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center), the movie has hardly been shown in the United States since its 1974 American release, for which it was shortened by over an hour. (Supremely unimpressed, The New York Times at the time characterized Marketa as “a colossal—and very near interminable—hodgepodge of medieval mayhem and myth, leaden symbolism and bloated piety,” featuring characters of “such unmitigated savagery that next to them the Visigoths would resemble a Red Cross mercy mission.”) Now released as a Criterion DVD in its full 165 minutes, Marketa Lazarová may finally reach a wider American audiences in all its sprawling glory.
more from J. Hoberman at the NYRB here.