By now, this burly, seething musk ox of a movie, arguably the most convincing film about the Middle Ages ever made, should be on everyone’s tongue.
Essentially cinema non grata everywhere until the Czechs restored it and voted it their national Best Ever in 1998, Frantisek Vlacil’s elliptical nightmare about warring medieval tribes in the Bohemian highlands has been undergoing a global re-evaluation, traveling with a Vlacil retro in 2002 and eventually video showcases all over.
Newcomers will be dazzled and baffled in turn; Vlacil’s strategy of adapting Vladislav Vancura’s apparently untranslatable novel was to craft an impressionistic odyssey that elides just as much narrative information as it imparts.
Get distracted worrying about narrative clarity, however, and suddenly the wolves are standing at the dark forest’s edge, watching you. (Repeat viewings help.)
In the process, the muscular physical-visual assault on hand, photographed with widescreen Gothic contrast by Bedrich Batka, manifests a vast, chaotic pagan world like no other film experience, and its impact can give you cause to start arguing about “pure cinema” all over again.
Is it the best Czech film? Maybe — at the very least it’ll rewrite your ideas of what the Eastern Bloc New Waves were capable of, and obliterate any reservations you might harbor about the potential veracity and edgy artfulness of historical epics.