You know how Game of Thrones gets really confusing with the various warring clans populated by so many characters that we barely get to know any of them? Now imagine if those medieval adventures in Westeros were moved to Czechoslovakia, filmed in black and white, and shot like an art film. Director Frantisek Vlacil’s epic 3 hour film limits the opposing parties to two tribes, but devolves into so much artistry along the way that its seemingly simple war story becomes a dense exercise in comprehension. This is a movie for hardcore movie lovers only, as it offers no conventional approach to historical drama, instead utilizing title cards to set up increasingly bizarre scenes seemingly included more for their surreal artistic merit than their narrative value.
Lacking a coherent plot, the film functions best as an extended art project, and on that count it’s a stunning success. The crisp and expertly staged and lit black and white photography makes every frame worthy of hanging on a wall. The experimental nature of the photography guarantees visual delight at every turn, and while the images don’t always make sense they always look incredibly intriguing. Thanks to this excellent new Criterion 4K digital transfer and restoration and its Blu-ray debut, US viewers have the best opportunity ever to experience the film in its full glory. The print has been burnished to perfection, with barely any perceptible debris or scratches and only minor and occasional wavering in contrast consistency. The uncompressed monaural audio presentation is adequate without being spectacular, but the film’s visuals are the draw.
The story is based on a novel depicting a longstanding feud between two rival medieval clans on the surface, but also evokes clashes between Christianity and paganism as well as humankind and nature. Battles are fierce and bloody, but are offset by ethereal scenes such as an innocent young lady joining a convent and another decidedly less innocent lass offering herself to a young man in a sun-dappled field. The acting performances aren’t particularly notable, aside from the head of one of the clans whose gruff demeanor, gravelly voice and fearsome scar on his bald scalp demand constant attention.
Bonus features include new interviews with a few of the principal actors and the film’s costume designer, a brief 1989 documentary where Vlacil discusses his filmmaking process, an interview with a technical director about the restoration, and interviews with a film historian and a journalist/critic about the film, along with an insightful gallery of storyboards by Vlacil.