A forgotten world-class figure, Frantisek Vlácil was, with just a handful of films to prove it, the Czech New Wave’s formalist, post-expressionist wrecking ball, their Welles, their Paradjanov. In the modest window between Moscow’s 20th Congress in ’56 and the tanks of ’68, Forman, Passer, and Menzel made Bohemia safe for the Oscars, Juraj Jakubisko pursued his orgiastic apocalypses, and Jan Nemec crystallized the Kafkaesque suffocation of extra-Soviet life. But briefly, Vlácil was the idiosyncrat, and the image master. Amid a movement renowned for its gritty intimacy and keen social observation, he trumped his compatriots’ notions of “nouvelle”-ness with 1967’s adaptation of Vladislav Vancura’s novel Marketa Lazarová. In the Czech Republic’s 1998 centennial celebration, that ambitious historical pageant was voted the greatest Czech film of all time, and it is a crazed musk ox of a movie, a nightmare epic about warring medieval tribes that brands you with images and passages of one-of-a-kind pagan muscularity. That same year, Vlácil revisits the milieu in Valley of the Bees, a moral fable of corruption and fundamentalism chronicling the clashing paths of two knight-monks—one a wayfarer from a hellish family who returns upon maturity to exact his own satisfaction, and the other a true believer who follows, brimming with homicidal righteousness. It’s no Lazarová, but Vlácil’s spectacular orchestration of landscape, violent chaos, wild animals, and Middle Age iconography is never less than impressive. All but one of Vlácil’s other films have been denied American release. Valley is now the first widely available Vlácil in the U.S.; here’s to exhuming his entire prickly, eye-popping oeuvre. No supplements.
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