In Vlkov, the Bohemian valley of the bees, the lord of the manor is getting married. It's his second marriage, at least, and the bride is practically a child, not much older, it looks, than the lord's son Ondrej. The boy is, perhaps understandably, resentful of a stranger taking the place of his mother. His idea of a wedding gift to her is a basket of flowers with live bats at the bottom. The insult enrages Dad, who grabs Ondrej and throws him face first into a stone wall. He repents his rage at once, praying for his son's recovery, and promising him to one of the militant religious orders if he does recover. He does.
Ondrej returns to the valley of the bees, where his father had long since died. He sets himself up as the lord of the manor, eventually claiming his erstwhile stepmother Lenora (Vera Galatikova) as his own bride. But in a creepy echo of the opening wedding scene, Arnim appears at the gate as young Ondrej had years earlier, and Ondrej steps over the table to confront him as his father had. But he manages to defuse the situation with his new wife's help, inviting the reluctant warrior to stay the night. It's a nice gesture, but not necessarily a wise one....
Primal passions are in play here, despite the characters' extreme efforts to overcome them. The end products are moments of startling cruelty. Vlacil can get as violent as any of his European peers of the period, and his film is of a piece with films from all over the continent (including the Czech Witches' Hammer) that contemplate or wallow in the brutality of pre-modern life. At least it seems more tasteful in black and white. The cinematography by Frantisek Uldrich offers the starkest contrasts of earthy everyday life and the immaculate austerity aspired to be religion. Invariably, however, the film reverts to violence and moral horror, with religion exacerbating rather than alleviating the upheavals of Arnim's troubled soul.
Lenora and Ondrej try to cheer up Arnim, but some people are incapable of cheer. You can usually tell them by the crusader gear and the crosses on their capes.
Armin and Lenora both struggle with unnatural-seeming feelings for Ondrej. The effort doesn't work well for either of them.
I thought the echoing of the first wedding in the second was a bit heavy handed, and the finish was pretty predictable once Arnim was invited to stay, but in sum I was impressed by Vlacil's direction and his construction of a convincingly dingy and decadent past. I'll be willing to give him another try, and now that I know the name, I think my local library may have a copy of Adelheid, the film that followed Bees. If so, my own private Vlacil festival will go on.