The Valley of the Bees (1968)

5A young man called Ondřej (Petr Čepek) has grown up mainly in a brotherhood of knights, after his father sent him to enter into an order in order to atone for his sins and honour the reputation of his wealthy family, after a particularly perilous event renders him very close to death. Over the years, Ondřej becomes accustomed to his life as a knight, finding a kindred spirit in the slightly older Armin (Jan Kačer), who befriends him from the outset, with the pair growing quite close over time. However, Ondřej has grown disillusioned with the brotherhood, and he continuously yearns for the spoils of his previous life, which contrasts with the frugal, minimalistic and highly-regulated lives of those in the order. After witnessing one of his fellow knights being executed for insubordination, Ondřej decides that he needs to escape, and decides to return home. Believing that the only person who can bring him back is someone he trusts, Armin is given the task of venturing across the region to retrieve him, a quest that is not particularly straightforward, especially when it becomes very clear that Ondřej has no intention of returning to the brotherhood, with his efforts to regain the life he lost years before taking preference over honouring the vow he took to the order. However, he soon learns that what he left behind may not be there any longer – most of his relatives have perished, his home is now in disrepair, and the name of his family is not associated with wealth or affluence any longer. Yet, it doesn’t prevent Ondřej from doing whatever he can to acclimate to what was rightfully his in the first place.

František Vláčil was one of the finest European auteurs when it came to making beautiful but effective historical dramas, and over the course of his career, he ventured deep into the history of his native country, stretching from the medieval period to a more contemporary era. The Valley of the Bees (Czech: Údolí včel) is widely considered one of his definitive masterworks, a powerful drama about brotherhood and homecoming that sees the director investigating themes of alienation and detachment, which he combines with gorgeous imagery and compelling story to create one of the most exquisite historical epics of the period, a pensive drama that gets beneath the veneer of the traditional medieval tragedy, and presents us with a hauntingly bleak, but thoroughly fascinating, character study, not only of the individuals it depicts in the central roles, but also the cultural context that surrounds it. A poetic expression of inner anguish and the desire to seek out one’s place of origin, and the subsequent psychological effects of realizing that hazy memories are a rather poor gauge of the value of the past, especially when it comes to matters of our homeland, which is more than just where we were raised, but where our souls first manifested. Beautifully intricate in its approach, and incredibly enduring on both a narrative and visual level, it’s quite clear that Vláčil went to extraordinary lengths to tell this story, and convey the poignant thematic depth that underlies The Valley of the Bees in its portrayal of the past.

The Valley of the Bees is a truly incredible drama that goes far beyond the confines of the traditional historical epic, and instead presents us with something far more personal, undoubtedly the result of the film being helmed by a director whose fascination with his country’s history pervades the majority of his work, and which is very evident here, in ways that are not even all that clear from the outset, especially since this is a piece set during the ambiguous Middle Ages. Venturing beyond traditions in terms of how the director pursues this story not as only a towering epic with enormous amounts of peril and adventure, but rather as a more intimate character study, was certainly an intrepid choice, and one that works out particularly well, especially when we realize that The Valley of the Bees is propelled less by the tone or appearance, but rather from the fact that it is telling a profoundly human story, where the medieval setting, which pivotal to understand this film on a socio-historical level, is rendered mostly inconsequential, as the concepts it touches on are universal, and should resonate with any viewer who is willing to give themselves over to Vláčil’s incredible vision for a few moments, where the incredible power of the film is almost overwhelming, particularly in the more quiet moments of introspection, where the most poignant commentary on matters of the soul come about in truly beautiful ways.

Despite the preconceived notions of what constitutes this kind of film, Vláčil defies expectations by delivering a profoundly simple film that never attempts to be bolder or more audacious than the story allows. Hence, the true ambition of The Valley of the Bees comes in how it often supersedes the restrictive requirements of the historical epic, which are normally weighed down by labyrinthine quests and elaborate fight. This film still features these elements, but often finds itself more enamoured with the idea of exploring the psychology of these characters. This evokes a pair of incredible performances from Petr Čepek and Jan Kačer, who lead their respective portions of the film with dignity and tact, while still developing their characters as complex individuals. It’s often expected of films like The Valley of the Bees to be more focused on finding the balance between the style and the substance, with the characters themselves often becoming casualties, usually being serviceable but unremarkable. This film goes about portraying its characters very differently – centred entirely around the protagonists, the spectacle evoked by Vláčil is derived from within, where the incredible work done by these actors, who interpret these characters with such ferocity, is what propels the film forward, and makes it such an unforgettable rich, complex piece of historical fiction. One storyline is split almost equally between the two actors, and they become intertwined (but not interchangeable in any way), with the aching despair underlying their performances being immensely moving, and the precise element that elevates this gorgeous film even higher, with the attention to the characters being an indelible element of the film’s resounding success.

The Valley of the Bees does have dual functions, working as both a compelling character study, but also a tremendously moving portrait of a time and period that now only exists in works that propose certain visions of that time. Vláčil opts for a more simple approach, and instead of presenting us with a bold tale of bravado and resounding victory, he chooses to operate at a more human level. He composes a fascinating portrait of nostalgia that bears great significance to the many other works that focus on a character returning to the past, whether through geographical travailing, or more metaphysical ponderings. In The Valley of the Bees, both are present, particularly in the eventual return of Ondřej to his home, where he is expecting to be greeted with the same jovial wealth he was forced to leave behind years before. The previous two acts had seen him journey towards this very moment, longing for the satiation of his home – only to have it somewhat eviscerated when his expectations are not met, and he encounters poverty, unease and despair, the physical manifestations of the psychological state he had been trying to escape. However, the theme of homecoming is used very well by Vláčil, who makes use of this disappointment and develops it into meaningful commentary on the visceral nature of reminiscence, and how what we remember is not always what we encounter, should we be fortunate enough to revisit the past in some way. The Valley of the Bees is fundamentally concerned with looking at the intersections between culture and belief, with the inversion of expectations being prominent in how the film comments on the main characters’ mental states – the structured order of the brotherhood pales in comparison to the chaotic uncertainty of Ondřej’s homeland, purely through the freedom it allows, and where the characteristic of surrendering to the unknown being the most liberating of all, because it provides a sense of belonging that no structured group could ever permit.

Vláčil carefully curates a film that doesn’t subvert the common themes it seeks to explore, but rather goes about looking at them from a different perspective. Beautifully-made, with some truly hauntingly gorgeous images presented through, The Valley of the Bees is an incredibly poignant film about identity, and how one’s environment can either envelope them, or cause them an unimpeachable sense of alienation, an isolation that can only be overcome through abandoning learned concepts and going out and searching for the comforts that may only exist in memory, but still find their way towards manifestation through conviction and genuine, earnest belief in the indelible nature of memory. Vláčil creates a heartfelt ode to the human spirit, and our insatiable ability to be beyond tenacious when presented with the challenges of finding our place in a world that often seems hostile and unnavigable for those who still hold onto the memories of the past. The Valley of the Bees is an exceptional work of philosophical art, where the historical context enriches, rather than supplements, the very human story at the core of the film, leaving the viewer overwhelmed by the incredible beauty, and deep psychological commentary presented to us in his astonishing medieval epic.


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