Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, Region 1 is getting a much better look at Eastern European filmmaking from the Cold War era. Pictures seen perhaps only once or twice at U.S. film festivals are now surfacing through importers like First Run Features and Facets Video, the label behind this grim but rewarding historical drama. An obscure name here but one of Czechoslovakia's most celebrated filmmakers, Frantisek Vlácil has a distinctive style. Facets' program notes describe his Valley of the Bees as combining aspects of Akira Kurosawa and Sergei Eisenstein.
Young Ondrej infuriates his father, the Lord of Vlkov (Zdenek Kryzánek) by insulting his very young bride Leonora on her wedding day. Believing the marriage cursed, the Lord ignores his wife and sends Ondrej into the harsh Order of St. Mary of Jerusalem. The oppressive Brotherhood of Teutonic Knights enforces a rigorous code of behavior and reserves horrible punishments for those who attempt to leave. After a number of years Ondrej (Petr Cepek) witnesses one conscientious objector thrown to the dogs, and decides to flee. He finally reaches home to find his father dead and his lonely stepmother Leonora (Vera Galatíková) willing to start a new life as his wife. The vassals are overjoyed to know that happiness may return to the Valley of the Bees. But Ondrej's devout brother knight Armin (Jan Kacer) is on his way to "set things right" -- and he's merciless when it comes to the rules.
Valley of the Bees begins with young Ondrej marveling at the bees in his father's hives, a fleeting image of harmony in a film obsessed with incompatible, oppressive philosophies. Unhappy to see his dead mother replaced by a child bride, the boy makes a wedding gift by putting a toad into a basket of flowers. The next thing Ondrej knows, he's being initiated into an all-male order of knights as a holy warrior. They wear the sign of the cross over their armor, pray from morning to night and are expected to live like monks -- literally untouched by females. When Ondrej returns to his castle and attempts to resume his old life, we know there'll be hell to pay.
It's easy to read an undercurrent of suppressed homosexuality into the Order. The 'warrior monks' lead a supposedly sexless existence that considers women untrustworthy agents of evil. Armin warns a young girl not to touch him, as if she might stain his purity. He and Ondrej swim together in the nude, although no sexual relationship is implied. But when Armin rides to bring his fugitive friend back to 'make penance,' personal emotions are definitely involved.
It's a violent world. The knights slaughter some tricksters they meet on the road. Ondrej broods darkly and Armin's rigid code of ethics leaves no room to interpret the rules. Little mercy is shown Ondrej when he restarts his life on more humanitarian principles. As his father never slept with her, Ondrej accepts Leonora as his wife and attempts a new beginning. The couple is allowed only a few moments of hope before Armin catches up with them. Armin clearly believes that his status as a 'soldier of God' allows him to dispense judgment and deal death as he sees fit.
The overall theme is Christianity vs. Paganism. The peasant populace is still linked to nature while the unyielding Christian order enforces cruel notions of sin and retribution. The brutal knights keep a pit of hounds to devour unworthy members. O0 ne of the first things Ondrej does upon his return home is have a vassal train a pack of hunting dogs, which we see bring down a deer. But the hounds are returned to their first function for the harrowing conclusion.
Frantisek Vlácil is a respected Czech director whose career was interrupted by the Soviet crackdown of the late 1960s. His Marketa Lazarová, another story of the rise of Christian values in medieval times, is considered a masterpiece. Vlácil's direction is austere but not rigid. His camera shifts between wide masters and telephoto medium shots and he avoids mannered compositions. The style has almost nothing in common with Sergei Eisenstein except for the presence of costumes similar to those seen in Alexander Nevsky.
The impressive production creates a convincing 13th-Century world of beautiful beaches and deep forests. Cold and forbidding, the seaside castle of the Brotherhood stands in sharp contrast to the warmth and peace of Ondrej's country house-compound. Elaborately staged celebrations and glimpses of daily life are shown but the film keeps its focus on the main characters. Ondrej finally begins to unwind when he reaches his ancestral home, and in one beautiful scene asks his servants to pour water over him. Director Vlácil lets us enjoy another brief moment of uncomplicated happiness as Ondrej washes away his past with the Knights. Beautifully filmed and carefully structured, Valley of the Bees offers a bleak but engaging view of intolerance, eight centuries ago.
Facets Video's DVD of Valley of the Bees is a sharp and well-encoded enhanced transfer of a handsomely filmed B&W feature. As with Facets' other recent Eastern European discs there are no extras, and the English subtitles are not removable. The disc was reviewed without complete packaging. Publicity brochures mention a "Facets Cine-Notes" Booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Valley of the Bees rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 2, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson