For Reel


Sirius (1974)
June 25, 2011, 11:01 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

Due to the political climate of the period, Frantisek Vlácil was restricted from making feature length films throughout much of the 1970s. In response, he completed a number of short films and, in the case of Sirius, a film intended for a younger audience. Frantisek, the young protagonist, has deified his Alsatian by naming him Sirius after the “Dog Star”, the brightest star visible from Earth. The metaphor serves as a means to articulate resurrection, suggesting that, while the star will disappear below the horizon in a few thousand years, it will one day return. Setting the picture during the Holocaust also reveals that this is more than a simple allegory about grief – one might refer to Sirius as a stand-in for the casualties of war, whose memory will not be lost in time. Frantisek’s father is captured by the Germans and, when the occupiers begin to round up the village dogs in order to train them as part of the Nazi patrol teams, Frantisek boards Sirius out of their sight. This material is hardly what one would consider to be child-friendly – despite the charming, almost telepathic connection that Frantisek has with his dog – but what makes the film so successful is Vlácil’s ability to use a childlike subjectivity in dealing with war. Frantisek is awe-struck and confused by his surroundings, only having a vague awareness about what is transpiring around him.

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Valley of the Bees (1968)
June 8, 2011, 8:38 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

Frantisek Vlácil’s second medieval period peace, filmed back-to-back with his oft-praised Marketa Lazarová, distances itself from Vlácil’s earlier efforts with an episodic, sprawling narrative. Rather than capturing a modestly scaled, intimate relationship between two people within a confined space of time, Valley of the Bees concerns the growth of Ondrej, a young Teutonic Knight, who, having been brutally assaulted by his father early in life, has developed his own violent tendencies. This violence is contrasted heavily with the religious zealotry that we see throughout the film – in prayer, two knights lay naked on a beach and allow the tide to torture their bodies, and later Ondrej’s step-mother is seen flagellating herself. With a reoccurring motif of dogs, who seem to represent the most carnal, uncivil desires of man, Vlácil criticizes religious doctrine as being a thinly-veiled disguise that distances us from animals only on the uppermost surface level.



The White Dove (1960)
June 8, 2011, 8:33 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

The first feature film of the overlooked Czech director Frantisek Vlácil, The White Dove premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 and would help usher in the Czech New Wave of the 1960s. Nearly wordless, the film is a simple allegory about two young children in Belgium and Prague who are united by a white dove. Flight is a motif that would follow Vlácil throughout much of his career – in Glass Skies, one of his short films, a young boy aspires to become a pilot. In Vlácil’s world, it quite often serves as an image of liberation – whether from sociopolitical bindings or inner anguish – and, although uplifting in The White Dove, it can be used to taunt his heroes, such as the doomed lovers-on-the-run in The Shadow of the Fern. Most memorable about The White Dove is its cinematography – much of the film is shot behind panes of glass or even a large fence that surrounds the boy’s apartment complex, juxtaposing the flightless bird with the child’s own isolation.



Serpent’s Poison (1981)
May 27, 2011, 9:32 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

Following the death of her mother, a young girl seeks out the father she never knew in a small, blue-collar village. Initially appearing to be little more than a film about the emotional awakening of a sullen laborer, the father’s alcoholism becomes the central conflict of the latter half of the film. Although such a premise is at the risk of becoming implausibly over-sensationalized (as is the case with Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend), Vlácil’s stark realism knows no ends and the father ultimately sinks further and further into his demons, never to be redeemed. Most memorable about the film is the black-and-white photography of the wintry, snow-swept landscapes, serving to cruelly taunt the father’s inability to thaw from his crippling disease.



The Devil’s Trap (1961)
May 27, 2011, 9:28 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

The first of Frantisek Vlácil’s three medieval films released during the 1960s (Marketa Lazarová being the most widely known), The Devil’s Trap is a stunning interpretation of the conflict between science and religion. A Jesuit priest arrives at a small, drought-ridden village in 16th-century Bohemia. Despite the conditions, however, a miller continues to prosper due to his studied observations of the land. The priest, confronting the miller, suggests that in looking at the ground he is simply a dog, whereas a man would look to the sky and be led by God. Hypnotically combining the realistic with elements of fantasy – a hollowed underground lair contains three suspicious paths – Vlácil is a remarkable stylist who uses point-of-view shots as evocatively as any of this contemporaries. In one, for example, he sways the camera back and forth to capture the point-of-view of a dancing girl racked with fear and suspicion.