Friday, August 22, 2014

Valley of the Bees (Údolí Včel) (1968)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

"Suffering is the way to God".

Welcome to the dark ages, where ignorance and religious fanaticism looms large. These are the medieval times in an unknown century, presumably the fourteenth. It is the era of the Christian Military Orders, societies of Knights with a common purpose of propagating and defending their faith. Men who commit to the life of the Order have to lead harsh lifestyles. This includes, vows of celibacy, rigorous fasting, praying, and ultimately defending the honour of their religion and faith. Deserting the Order is a punishable offense, and anyone found guilty of doing so would be tagged a traitor and could face death by some of the worst methods.

Some of these men, however, don't necessarily commit to the Order on their own accord. A few are forced into it for various reasons. They are perhaps too young to realize what they are getting into, or are paying for the sins of their fathers. In such a scenario, there are those who choose to flee. They desire the good life, settle down, marry, have kids. And why not? It's only human. But then, it's a sin to even think like that, for by doing so, you are betraying Jesus Christ. With such unpleasant ideas instilled in these men, it is not unthinkable that some have doubts, and face a strong crisis of faith. But the Order claims that they have weakened and pray that God forgive them their weakness!

František Vláčil's "Valley of the Bees" (1968) takes us right at the heart of such a grim universe. A teenaged Ondrej, angered that his much older father is marrying a girl his age in their large castle, gifts his new mother a basketful of flowers, beneath which there turn out to be a number of half-dead bats! Enraged at the insult to his new bride, Ondrej's father flings his son on a wall, badly hurting him. Calming down the next instant and regretting his act, though, the father prays that his son's life be saved, in return for which, he vows to send his son to the Order so he can dedicate the rest of his life to serving God.

Several years pass by and Ondrej grows up to be a man (Petr Cepek) in the Order, and in the process, strikes a warm friendship with his mentor, Armin (Jan Kacer). An unforeseen chain of events leads to Ondrej ultimately fleeing from the Order and seeking a path back home. A dejected Armin vows to find Ondrej and bring him back.

Vláčil tells a story that is reasonably simple, but rife with complex themes, addressing subjects like crisis of faith and the established concepts of sin and redemption. Ondrej eventually returns home to find his father dead and his stepmother Lenora grown into a beautiful woman (Vera Galatíková). Not surprisingly, there is an instant attraction, but it is sinful to have such feelings for each other, for in effect, they are mother and son, even though they've hardly known each other or lived with that kind of a bond. Both, supposed devout Christians are now faced with a huge dilemma.

Lenora flogs herself in one scene, presumably as punishment for having lustful thoughts about her stepson. But when he does make advances, she rejects them, although she seems to want him. She sighs in silence and looks on in helpless desperation when she overhears Ondrej and the maids discuss about an impossibility of there being any children in the courtyard to make it a livelier place. Quite ironically, in a bid to save the dying local Church, the priest Father Blasius (Michal Kozuch) agrees to marry off Ondrej and his stepmother, thus letting them officially sin in return for a donation!

While Ondrej is the apparent lead character here, it is the character of Armin that acts as a driving force in putting forth several of the stronger themes. Armin's desperation to bring Ondrej back may be a result of a homosexual undercurrent, although it is not made explicit. There are scenes to suggest that men committed to the Order experience a sexual urge towards their fellow knights.

One particular bawdy-looking man seems to make advances at Armin, which he rejects. The entire scene is pulled off in an implicit manner and one may even fail to notice that any such thing is implied. At one point Armin who doesn't make an eye contact with a woman says, "Men of the order do not look at women", almost serving as a veiled reference to homosexuality being a norm in sects such as the one Armin comes from!

On at least two occasions, other characters point out that Armin's body feels cold. This serves as a metaphorical reference for how dead Armin really is! All the life has been sucked out of him. He is the trained robot of the Order, a stubborn protector of the faith, one who wouldn't relent and will abide by the rules 'til the very end. There appears to be a direct attack on the rigid dogmatism of any religion, sect or organization in general. It wouldn't be wrong to think of "Valley of the Bees" as a veiled critique of the authoritarian and harsh ways of the Communist government, considering the film was released in 1968, the decade of the very important Czech new wave. Armin's stuck up ways and the authoritarianism of the head of the sect enforcing rules, very much mirrors communist traits.

A lot of ambiguity surrounds the character of Armin and his motivations, especially pertaining to his acts in the final third. Apart from the homosexual subtext discussed above, there also appears to be a strong sense of jealousy stemming from a false sense of pride and accomplishment in the faith of the Order. A very intense conversation takes place between Armin and Father Blasius. Armin vents: "Why should only the virtuous die of cold and hunger in their cells? The others live without faith and multiply like ants". Armin is left with a sense of disbelief and an obvious crisis. What good is his dedication to the Order, following all the rules, while the one who breaks them, Ondrej, is about to begin a happy life with a woman. A devastated Armin feels forsaken by God when he simply cannot come to terms with the fact that Ondrej is a much happier man, despite his supposed betrayal of Christ. And therefore, what actually drives Armin to take that final drastic step, is open to interpretation.

A film as dark, and of such intense magnitude needed a storytelling style just as dark and disquieting, and Vláčil ensures that he does justice. His film is a marvel of a period piece that puts you right in the midst of the middle ages. The attention to detail, the costumes, the sets, everything is authentic to the hilt. The poetic filming style and the bleak, black and white cinematography ensures that every frame evokes a sense of despair and desolation. 

A brooding atmosphere and a sublime, hypnotic score evoking gloom and loneliness adds to the experience and literally makes the viewer feel the chill of those godforsaken times. The long shots overlooking the castles, the fortresses and their interiors emanate a ghostly aura and a sense of foreboding. For all its style, the film would probably not have been as effective had it not been for the exceptional performances from a great primary cast of three. The actors completely understand their characters and their inner conflicts and end up delivering powerful, convincing performances.

František Vláčil's "Valley of the Bees" is a masterpiece of Czech cinema, a dark saga that has such enormous power, it will likely leave you gazing at the screen long after the final frame.

Score: 10/10

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