The Valley of the Bees (1967)

“Just like the comparisons to the classical art house cinema of Eisenstein, Bergman, Kirosawa and Bresson are easy to draw and even easier to see, to burden ‘The Valley of the Bees’ with such weighty labels is and political readings, in all honesty, rather unfair, since obviously more than capable of standing up and speaking for itself.  This film is by no means your classic Middle Ages fable, and is most definitely a nightmare rather than fairytale, since the dragons Ondřej and those around him must face are far more fearsome than the one St. George ever had to slay.”

‘The Valley of the Bees’, directed by František Vláčil in 1967, is a Czechoslovak historical drama set in the middle ages. Petr Cepek plays Ondrej, a Teutonic knight who is mentored by Armin, played by Jan Kacer. Ondrej choses to leave the order to return to his family home, where he marries his dead father’s widow. Armin pursues Ondrej across Eastern Europe, and when he discovers his former protégé has now married, he exacts a terrible retribution. The film is, in effect, an off-shoot of Vláčil’s longer epic ‘Marketa Lazarová’. Made in the same year, ‘Marketa Lazarová’ reportedly cost so much money that the director made ‘The Valley of the Bees’ with the same costumes in order to off-set the costs. The result is a shorter, more focused movie, one that makes up for a lack of Tarkovsky-like scale with a Bergman-like concentration on individual psychologies. I found ‘The Valley of the Bees’ to be easier to digest and more pacey than Vláčil’s other offering. The result of this is that whilst watching ‘Marketa Lazarová’, I was distracted from the style and cinematography by the sheer scale of the film, here I was able to see and savour the intricate framing and dynamic camera movements. The film is threaded with religious imagery, but unlike the somewhat ironic references of Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’, here they are pure and clear, for example an early shot of the pair of knights lying in the sea, a reference to baptism, is repeated both visually and aurally throughout. It’s clear, clean, shocking and masterfully directed. Better than Bergman.

Would I recommend it? Yes – I’d watch it with ‘The Seventh Seal’ for contrast, and before ‘Marketa Lazarová’ as a useful primer for František Vláčil’s style.

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