Criterion Prediction #54: The Valley of the Bees, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Valley of the Bees
Director: František Vláčil
Cast: Petr Cepek, Jan Kacer, Vera Galatikova, Zdenek Kryzánek, Miroslav Macháček
Synopsis: A young Ondrej is thrown against a stone wall by his father once he gives his soon-to-be-stepmother a basket of bats and bees camouflaged with flowers for a wedding present. Realizing he almost killed his son in a fit of rage, Ondrej’s father promises that his son will forever serve the Lord if his life is spared. Holding up his end of the deal with the Almighty, Ondrej is enlisted in the Order of the Teutonic Knights, but he eventually deserts his mentor to return home in order to wed his stepmother.
Critique: My frame of reference for František Vláčil is somewhat limited. For a long time I was only familiar with his 1967 title Marketa Lazarová, thanks to the Criterion Collection release a few years ago.
As if his instincts were intentionally counter-intuitive to the comedic allegories of the Czech New Wave, Vláčil’s unabashedly baroque instincts seem to fit the mythic proportions of his gothic settings all too perfectly. While he’s deftly capable of executing contemporary narratives (his two WWII films – Adelheid and Shadows of a Hot Summer – are proof of his directorial prowess) his true strength excels while working in the atmosphere of the middle ages – Marketa Lazarová fueled my theory, and The Valley of the Bees confirmed it.
In many ways, Marketa Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees share the same DNA. The latter feels like an expedited form of dramatic consolidation; in a manner of speaking it is an epic with an agreeable running time of 96 minutes. Proving that scope doesn’t necessarily have to match length, Vláčil and screenwriter Vladimír Körner instill an expansive timeline that is measured in pace and detailed in setting. There’s a gravelly, rough-hewn quality that warns us of the anarchic tenor of the times; earthy gracefulness is interrupted with moments of graphic violence, an erratic tone that fluctuates in sync with the film.
In some respects, the unrestrained stylistic flourishes can emit an air of pretentiousness. However, heavy-handed artistry in this case feels permissible; as if there were a truly flattering way to depict that the Dark Ages?
The Valley of the Bees deals with mythical subjects (knights, rituals, themes both Freudian/Oedipal), and an ethereal grandeur that worked for Marketa Lazarová functions just as well here, if not more so. From what I’ve seen of Vláčil’s work I can say that his dense and murky type of filmmaking isn’t the easiest to cozy up to, but once you calibrate yourself to the level and tone of these movies, they are extremely rewarding. The Valley of the Bees feels like it was plucked from a specific time and place, transformative power of Vláčil’s filmmaking is disarmingly powerful.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: For many of us in North America, Marketa Lazarová is our main impression of the director. The Valley of the Bees is very much cut from the same cloth, and it’s evident that František Vláčil has a vision and a style unlike that of anyone else from the Czech New Wave. Hopefully, The Criterion Collection will add to his one title the library. This month’s wacky drawing featuring some bees might be a hint as to an upcoming release; wishful thinking perhaps. Regardless, The Valley of the Bees was in my queue so let’s hope for more František Vláčil.