Valley of the Bees

English Title: Valley of the Bees

Original Title: Údolí Včel

Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia

Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov

Director: František Vláčil

Producer(s): Věra Kadlecová

Screenplay: František Vláčil, Vladimír Körner

Cinematographer: František Uldrich

Editor: Miroslav Hájek

Runtime: 97 minutes

Genre: History/Drama

Language: Slovak

Starring/Cast: Petr Čepek, Jan Kačer, Věra Galatíková, Zdéněk Sedláček, Zdeněk Kryzánek

Year: 1968

Volume: East European

Synopsis:

After playing a practical joke on his father’s pubescent bride, Ondřej is thrown against a wall and almost killed. His father supplicates the Virgin Mother and begs for his son not to die, and in return promises him to the Order of Teutonic Knights. When Ondřej reaches maturity he begins to question his faith and allegiance to the Order. He decides to give up the monastic life and return to his home village. However, his brother in the faith, Armin von Heide, vows to return Ondřej to the monastery and pursues him the entire way, where he finally discovers Ondřej on his wedding day.


Critique:

Údolí Včel/Valley of the Bees, like director František Vláčil’s previous film Marketa Lazarová (1967), is set in the medieval world of thirteenth century Bohemia when crusading knights fought for Christ in the Holy Land and the last vestiges of Paganism came into conflict with prevailing Christianity. It is a dark world that owes much to Ingmar Bergman’s Jungfrukällan/The Virgin Spring (1960), where life is harsh, very often brutal, and the populous lack rudimentary comforts. The oppressive nature of existence is paralleled in the Order of Teutonic Knights whose monastic way of life forbids ‘temptation by woman, man, or your own body’.  It is this Monastic Order in which the protagonist Ondřej finds himself when, like Jephthah’s daughter, he is promised into religious service by his father. The repressive nature of medieval Christianity, in particular the Teutonic Knights who follow a strict and codified morality, parallels the repressive nature of totalitarian regimes where subservience of the individual and unquestioned obedience to the State is demanded. These knights are unforgiving, preferring a fallen brother to throw himself to the hounds rather than practice love, forgiveness or charity. Obedience to the law is paramount and any deviation or an attempt to leave is met with violence. Vláčil presents a world in which religion, like politics, can be used as a form of social control.

 

After reaching maturity Ondřej decides to leave the Order and return to the village of his birth. When he returns he finds that his father is dead, and he thus takes his position as laird of the land and marries his father’s widow, Lenora. He is pursued by fellow knight Armin von Heide, whose rigid adherence to the Order’s dogma only comes close to being undermined when his love and passion for Ondřej overwhelms him. In the relationship between Ondřej and Armin there is an understated homoeroticism. When Ondřej is first befriended by Armin the youthful Ondřej is naked, discovering the ocean for the first time. The camera cuts to an extreme long shot in which Armin stands on the vast beach and all that can be seen is Armin’s cloak gently rippling in the sea breeze, by which we can infer the boy Ondřej is within the folds. Later, the older Ondřej and Armin lie naked together on the beach as the cold waves wash over them, numbing their lower bodies in an attempt to ‘mortify’ their members in the Pauline sense. Here Armin turns to Ondřej and says, ‘Suffering is the way to God’, and it is clear that his love for Ondřej is more than brotherly.

 

After Ondřej leaves the monastery to return to his home, Armin’s fervour in returning Ondřej to the Order seems less motivated by redeeming his soul and protecting him from the secular dangers that threaten his eternal salvation than by an overpowering need to possess him. Armin, whose faith never wavers, firmly believes that Ondřej can be saved. However, his belief and conviction borders on madness – a madness driven by an obsessive passion; and when Armin discovers that Ondřej has not only forsaken the Order but is now contaminated, not only by the touch of a woman but by the semi-incestuous love of his own step-mother, that passion erupts into violence.

 

Valley of the Bees was shot in 1967, shortly after Marketa Lazarová, and was only released after the upheaval and social tumult of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. It was subsequently investigated by the Soviet authorities as a potentially subversive allegory, something that underlines its bleak portrait (reminiscent of Bresson and Bergman) of fundamentalist ideologies, loss of individual freedoms, suppression of human desires to a rigid moral code, and the fanaticism of acolytes with a willingness to kill. In this regard, and in today’s religious and political climate, Vláčil’s film remains remarkably contemporary.

Author of this review: Zachariah Rush