Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Marketa Lazarová: Notes After a First Viewing

(written in 2007 as a response to Frantisek Vlácil's Marketa Lazarová, mirroring both my initial bewilderment and my excitement at seeing its medieval world so pungently realised)

The lamb of god wandered through the mud of the early spring thaw and into an encampment, where it was slaughtered and eaten; eaten even by its own shepherd while he was drunk. Bereft, he then stumbled to the hills where he followed the bleats of an escaping thief. Later he took to the tracks once again and a goat served for his needs.

Winter is long here. When water drips from the melt on the rooves and we are told that the thaw is coming, our bodies are expectant for the tentative warmth of spring. Instead we see the cold glister of chain mail on a man’s back as he rides home. At dusk, horses’ silhouettes skitter across the thawing ground which has the sheen of mercury, a slippery bed for the rough violation of a stolen girl. Wet, claggy snow clings on cart wheels. Pied carriage dogs hold their ears alert.

Marketa’s sleeves extend to the base of her fingers, a comfort nearly as soft as the down of the dove she pulls from her breast, an offering for the devout, its feathers loosed to the wind. Alexandra offers a blood sacrifice and a necklace of beads and feathers to the skulls on the fetish tree, kisses her brother’s left arm. The seeds of the wild grasses ripen in the sunlight. A serpent watches.

The creaking of ice, the wind through stone passageways and windows, the muted hammering on an anvil, the clank of implements hanging from carts, the splitting of carcasses and the beating of hides, the thunk of stone on a head, a chain against a breast-plate, the clash of swords, bells on a sled, the splash through water and the rolling of wheels, the burning of wood, the howl of wolves. These are some of the sounds behind Zdenek Liska’s film music.

Clear air after snow, horses and their muck, burning brands, coltsfoot and butterburr, leather and hide, warmed skin, charred meat, pine woods, a bed of leaves, marsh mud, burning tallow tapers, burning logs, stale sweat, fear, blood. These are some of the smells in Frantisek Vlácil’s film.

Characters call out to each other and catch sight of one another across time and space. Premonitions and memories fly, land and flash into vision, as if the falcons tethered to branches had been loosed. Men and women are assailed by visions, and omens have as much bodily presence as any reality. Black beasts and deer approach. Kozlik’s antlers are bigger than branches. Man is transient as a shadow.

The air is thick with voices, arrowed from the darkness of a wood at dusk. The trees talk. Later, limbs are but logs among the twisted branches and the leaf mould. Voices are ever on the air, echoing through Straba’s delirium around the walls of Rohacek, along with cries, whip cracks and the faintest of knocks on a thick wooden door. A sister offers the warmth of fur, a brother feels the rough, thick knots of a cord garment across his shoulders.

There is much hiding here, behind scrub and lacerating thorn-thicket. A white mare struggles to escape from the marsh, leaps through the water, but cannot pull itself out from the suck of the mud, watches us, then grazes on the marsh grass as we look back over our shoulders. We are caught, like the wood mice that snuffle between apparently sleeping fingers.

On a blasted bone-strewn heath, love and certainty fought with cruelty and doubt for the issue of the children’s souls. As ever was.

May your house be filled with health and happiness. May your oxen thrive.

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