I confess my heart sank when I saw that this was another Frantisek Vlácil film, whose Marketa Lazarova (1968) was nice to look at, but didn’t do much for me. (The fact that the film was on the Facets label didn’t raise my hopes either.) I was then pleasantly surprised to find Valley of the Bees a work I liked a good bit — apart from my revulsion at one scene. That scene is worth noting, too, because it involves a deer being hunted down and killed by dogs — and I don’t believe it was faked. I know there are readers out there who take issue with that sort of thing as much or more than I do. I understand why the scene is there, but that doesn’t excuse it having been done as it was. That, however, does underscore the fact that this is a frequently brutal film about life and religion in the 13th century. It is also a pretty and frequently powerful film interlaced with some equally strong subtext — and a bit that’s just plain text.
The story is straightforward enough. When young Ondrej (Petr Cepek) surprises his father’s child bride, Lenora (Vera Galatkova), with a basket of flowers that turn out to have some live bats beneath the petals, his enraged father hurls him against a wall. Chagrined by his actions, the father prays that if God will let the boy live, he’ll turn the young man over to the Church. As a result, Ondrej ends up in a very harsh monastery (those who try to run away are torn apart by dogs as punishment). He bonds with the exceedingly devout Armin (Jan Kacer), who is the film’s most complex character. When Ondrej runs away to return home, Armin gets permission to track him down and bring him back. Ondrej makes it home to find his father has died and the estate has fallen on bad times (not that good times during that age were anything to brag about). Not surprisingly, it’s not long before Ondrej and Lenora are an item — and not much longer before Armin puts in an appearance with all the trouble that portends.
There’s nothing in the least remarkable about the story. It’s hardly, as some have suggested, in a league with Ingmar Bergman. In fact, if you look at the way it’s structured, there’s more Hollywood than Bergman to it — and it comes with a large side-order of operatic melodrama. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I do think it a mistake to take it quite as seriously as some have. As far as storytelling goes, Valley of the Bees feels too obvious to be completely persuasive — and a notable lack of humor doesn’t help. The feeling of straining for importance works against it at every turn.
The film is at its most interesting in its depiction of repression — especially sexual repression — and the fallout from it. This is also why Armin is easily the film’s most interesting character. His early bonding with Ondrej combines both homoeroticism and denial in one package. There’s an early scene where Armin expresses revulsion over a frieze of men lining up for a drink from a beautiful woman — and even greater distaste for the fact that an unattractive man is talking about this picture. (In the film’s somewhat ham-handed manner, this will resurface quite late in the film in a more literal manner.) Armin’s pursuit of Ondrej is in the same homoerotic key — and the film can be read as essentially about their relationship. But there’s more buried in this, because Armin is finally revealed as seething with hatred for anyone and everyone who doesn’t suffer the pains and denials that he inflicts on himself in the name of religion. It’s a chilling portrayal in a film that doesn’t quite live up to it.