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The viewer’s eye is the big winner in Frantisek Vlácil’s Valley of the Bees, but there’s more than meets the eye in this excellent film about medieval Europe. Even if it hadn’t been photographed with such austere and formal beauty, the engaging story and solid acting would make this a rewarding experience. But it is the wonderful attention to visual composition that I’ll remember about this film.

Born to Run

It is Eastern Europe at the beginning of the Middle Ages. The Crusades have begun, Europe is in transition out of its Dark Age and the Church is triumphant. Life is not easy for the small, disassociated groups of people who struggle to survive, surrounded by a dark and unknown world.

After he spoils his father’s wedding to his very young stepmother, the boy Ondrej (Petr Cepek) is forcibly sent away to become part of a religious order with a military twist. Once you are in, you don’t leave.

Years pass, and the man Ondrej finally abandons The Order to return to his old home, where he finds his father now dead. Here, he incestuously marries his widowed stepmother Lenora (Vera Galatíková). Ondrej wasn’t as committed to The Order as his friend Armin (Jan Kacer), who tracks him back home, intent on bringing him back into the fold and thereby saving his soul. When Armin finds Ondrej on his wedding day, doubly damned, tragedy ensues for all involved.

The World Has Changed

Valley of the Bees was made in Czechoslovakia in 1967 (this is just a year before Soviet tanks would be in the streets of Prague), which may explain why Vlácil’s work remains little known in the West.

A lot has changed in the nearly 40 years since then. Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union are both gone and much of what was important to director Vlácil no longer is an issue. For instance, the references to beehives had a much different spin than they might now. It will be 20 years before the Czech Velvet Revolution, and Vlácil must be careful about making too much of hive mentality. And when Armin is shown as a victim of his own rigid inhumane adherence to The Order, Vlácil is being being both politically correct in his criticism of the all powerful Church (see Eisenstein’s characterization of the Church in Alexander Nevsky ) and at the same time subversively critical of people who give themselves up to ideology.

How much differently Armen’s religious zealotry plays today.

Finding the Middle

Ondrej’s friend Armen is completely bound to The Order. He has no place in the earthly world. For him, religion is everything. Ondrej, however, is indifferent to the artificial constraints of social order. He lives in the material plane. Each lives in a world that is impossible for the other to survive in. I’m going to go out on a limb at this point and suggest that this self-centeredness is the key to the strong visual composition in Valley of the Bees.

Throughout the film there is a consistent focusing of the scene to the center of the screen. Medieval man lived at the center of his world. In Armen’s case, it is the ordered discipline of the spiritual world. In Ondre’s it is the disordered chaos of the natural world. Normally, I’d consider the visual composition of a film as being an interesting, if minor, component to that film. But in this case Vlácil is so insistent and the effort so conscious, he has elevated the camera to being a player along with the actors. The austere black and white formal look to this film is wonderful.

There are other undercurrents to Valley of the Bees: what is ‘good’ and what, really, is ‘evil’? Is the world of man really that different from the natural word? What is artifice and what is real? Any of these could support essays longer than this one. Instead, if I could make one final point about Valley it would be that it is truly an adult film, made by adults for adults. A steady diet of adult fare will become as tedious as any, but for me Valley of the Bees is a real treat that leaves me wanting to see more of Vlácil’s work and wanting to know more about the man himself (he died in 1999). The distributor’s notes suggest that Vlácil’s Marketa Lazarova is his best work.

That I’ve got to see.