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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "The Valley of the Bees" (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967)

If you want a stark understanding of the difference between a transportive work of art and an immersive work of art, you could do worse than to watch Vlacil's Marketa Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees back to back. It'll take you approximately four-and-a-half hours, but it'll be worth it. Lazarová, which accounts for about three of those hours, is an unclassifiable period epic that takes about as oblique an approach to narrative as any film I've ever seen, such that if you're not paying a particular kind of attention, you're apt to completely miss out on the "doomed love affair" (as per the back cover notes on the Second Run DVD release) that it's ostensibly/partially about.

This is part of what I said when I reviewed that Second Run DVD back in 2008: " 'Now I regret all the times I've used words like 'power' and 'energy' to describe rock and roll,' Robert Christgau wrote in 1970, reviewing the Stooges' LP Funhouse, 'because this is what such rhetoric should have been saved for.' Watching Second Run's DVD of the 1967 Czech film Marketa Lazarová, I entertained similar thoughts; all the times I've used words like 'staggering' and 'jaw-dropping' to describe a film's imagery, and now here's this. It's not, obviously, as if Frantisek Vlacil's film contains the most staggering/jaw-dropping imagery in the history of cinema...it's more that it contains the most consistent succession of staggering/jaw-dropping images. Or something." And it is precisely that succession that makes the narrative seem subordinate to everything else in the picture, and transports the viewer; this isn't merely period, one believes while watching; it's cosmic.

Make no mistake: at a level of craft, and passion, Valley of the Bees is no less beautiful than Marketa Lazarová. It's just more straightforward. Using some of the same sets as the prior film (indeed, it was put into production briskly in order to take advantage of the existence of such constructs) it gets straight into its meaty story right away. Young Ondrej is "sacrificed," as it were, by his father after a disastrous scene at said father's wedding to a girl who's about Ondrej's age—something like twelve, that is. In the Teutonic Knights, Ondrej forms a kinship with the fanatical Armin. Once disillusioned with his "crusade," Ondrej breaks away and reclaims his estate...and claims the woman who was once his stepmother (his father having passed a while back). But Armin is in hot pursuit and eager to get Ondrej back to where he once, and according to Armin, still does, belong.

The proceedings are brisk and sometimes feverish, and they end badly for all involved. Armin's fervor was taken—not inappropriately, one has to admit—by Czech authorities as being allegorically critical of totalitarianism.

The brutal violence that ends the shot above represents the most galvanic image of the film, and in a note included in the booklet of the Region 1 NTSC Facets domestic edition of this film, screenwriter Vladimir Korner comes out and states: "the ending represents the victory of dogmatism and a humble return to the walls of the Kremlin, to Soviet dogmatism."

That booklet may be the only really worthwhile thing about the Facets version which presents the film in an unconscionably soft transfer, interlaced, with burned-in subtitles and a preponderance of neglectful PAL-to-NTSC conversion artifacts. Note the two screen caps below. The first of the two is from the brand-new Region 2 PAL DVD from Second Run, which did such a beautiful job with Marketa Lazarová. Note the sharpness of detail the solidity of contrast. The second of the two is the Facets disc, considerably softer and muddier. The starkness of the image boils down here to a kind of gray soup.

The Second Run DVD also features a lengthy, excellent booklet essay by Peter Hames. It doesn't duplicate any of the texts contained in the Facets booklet, but it nicely synthesizes much of the information contained therein. But the most important thing, as ever, is the image, and here, Second Run's version wins, and wins big.

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