Review by Jason Pirodsky
“When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This mantra from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance can also explain the historically dubious popularization of a number of infamous figures, including Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth (or Erzsébet) Báthory. Vlad the Impaler, often cited as Bram Stoker´s inspiration for Dracula, needs no introduction; after Stoker´s novel and countless Dracula films, he was given his own ‘true story´ in Joe Chapelle´s 2000 TV film Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula. Elizabeth Báthory is just as infamous, the ‘Blood Countess´ whom the folks at Guinness have given the title of #1 serial killer: 600 kills (she was convicted of 80), mostly young girls, she bathed in their blood to preserve her youthful beauty. Or so the legend goes; the 16th century lacked the technology to verify such claims. Compared to Dracula, Báthory has received far less attention on the cinematic front, featured in some low-budget 70´s horror flicks like Countess Dracula and Daughters of Darkness; a definitive story of her legend has yet to be told.
And we´ll have to wait: Juraj Jakubisko´s new film Bathory is presented, like Chapelle´s Dracula movie, as if it were a myth-debunking ‘true story´ of Báthory. Two things are needed, I think, to make this film work: we need a story, like it or not, that more or less lives up to the legend, and history that seems more or less accurate. Jakubisko fails on both counts, giving us a wandering, plotless film that seems content to run down a laundry list of events in the life of Báthory rather than engaging the viewer, along with entirely (and intentionally) dubious history. Yes, believe it or not, we´re given an invented romance with Italian painter Caravaggio and roller-skating monks in this film that desperately wants us to believe its version of the facts. And that´s not even the worst offender: Jakubisko ultimately wants to paint Báthory as some sort of heroic and/or tragic figure. By the end, I was reminded of the finale of Caligula, with Malcolm McDowell´s head rolling down the steps – wait, what? Now you want us to care about this maniac? (Note that the film doesn´t shy away from Báthory´s status as a murderer, evidenced by one particularly brutal scene in which she stabs a servant to death with scissors.)
Bathory is divided into three separate acts: the first, entitled Ferenc, deals with Báthory´s (portrayed – sometimes quite stunningly – by Anna Friel) marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy (Vincent Regan), who commands Hungarian troops in a war against the Ottomans. While he´s away, Báthory lives at Čachtice Castle in what is now Slovakia, and develops a bizarre romance with famed homosexual painter Caravaggio (Hans Matheson). Dubious from a historical standpoint, and mostly unnecessary in the context of the movie (I guess you can draw some connection between Caravaggio´s baroque paintings and Báthory´s legend, but the film doesn´t), it´s a curious choice by the director.
The second act of the film, entitled Darvulia, concerns Báthory´s enchantment under the witch-like Darvulia (Deana Jakubisková-Horváthová, wife of the director), who saves her life and mixes her potions to sustain her beauty. Around this time, people in the nearby village go missing and dead bodies begin to pop up; rumors of something evil at Čachtice Castle, promoted by local minister Ponicky (Anthony Byrne), begin to spread. Two catholic monks are sent in to investigate. Báthory occasionally goes mad and murders people, but hey, that´s OK: she didn´t kill all those people they say she did.
The third act is entitled Thurzo and involves the struggle of power between Báthory and György Thurzó (Karel Roden), who fought with her husband and envies her wealth. Thurzó sees the rumors surrounding Báthory as a means to strip her of her power, and in a particularly lame action set-piece, he and his men stage a massive torture scene in the cellar of the castle in order to frame Báthory for the lurid accusations. But the monks free the prisoners, and Báthory and servant Ficko dispose of some of Thurzó´s men and expose him for what he is. The day is saved. Or not: Thurzó has Báthory´s servants tortured until they testify against her and Báthory is imprisoned in her castle for the rest of her life. Lazy screenwriting at its finest: if Thurzó was just going to do that, why did he stage the needlessly complex torture scene?
Ultimately, the film fails to convince me of anything it has to say, and I really, really wish they had filmed the legend instead of this weak version of the purported ‘facts´. And even though I see the screenwriter flailing his arms in an attempt to get me to feel empathy for this murderer, I don´t. That´s not to say I didn´t enjoy the film in some capacity: there´s plenty of violence and nudity, and things never really get boring. An hour shorter and you might have a nice-looking piece of Euro-sleaze. At 140 minutes, however, this misguided epic is mostly a failure.
Highly unnecessary comic relief comes in the form of Czech actors Bolek Polívka and Jiří Mádl as the pair of roller-skating monks sent to investigate the accusations surrounding Báthory (Polívka, or rather the actor who horrendously dubbed him, also narrates the film). The characters of monks Petr and Cyril are bumbling, stumbling updates of the those played by Jack MacGowran and Roman Polanski in Fearless Vampire Killers, complete with ridiculous inventions more at home in Stephen Sommer´s Van Helsing: wooden roller-skates, a dubious hand gliding device, and shoes that allow them to trek up a snow-covered mountain without moving a leg. So pointless are these characters and their scenes that they only detract from the overall film; though admittedly, the sheer audacity of the decision to include them is entertaining.
A note about the dubbing: the film was (mostly) shot in English, a necessity given the range of international actors appearing in the film. For the most part, this isn´t an issue, though the variety of European accents (both real and attempted) often clash. Yet the scenes with the monks seem to have been shot in Czech (or Slovak) and dubbed into English; just like those Spaghetti Westerns and other Italian films from the era, which were shot without sound, the actors reading their lines in whatever language they could, and dubbed into a variety of languages for international release. That was fine when you had actors like Clint Eastwood reading their lines in English and dubbing themselves, but was sometimes distracting when other actors were clearly speaking a different language. In Bathory, when the rest of the film has been shot and recorded in English, the awful American-English dubbing over Polívka is more jarring than your average poorly-dubbed Godzilla movie (Mádl, who seems to have dubbed himself, fairs much better).
British actress Friel is terrific as Báthory, and it´s a shame the rest of the film doesn´t live up to her performance. The rest of the cast fails to make much of an impression; still, this is Friel´s film. Franco Nero shows up in a glorified cameo as King Matthias.
From a technical standpoint: the film looks great, often exceptional, though the lush, sumptuous cinematography by Ján Duris is often compromised by over-anxious editing (particularly in the film´s first third) that seems more concerned with shortening the long running time. Jakubisko has a real feel for the era, and with costume designer Jaroslava Pecharová creates a lavish and convincing atmosphere. Unfortunately, much of this is tarnished by some cheap-looking CGI, mostly employed in bloodletting effects and exterior shots re-creating Čachtice Castle. Original music by Jan Jirásek is appropriately moody.
I take no pride in deriding this latest film from Jakubisko, often cited as one of the greatest Slovak directors, and a filmmaker whose works I am, perhaps, not as well-versed in as I should be. But Bathory clearly lacks the controlling hand of an auteur; long delays in production (filming began in late 2005, the movie finally released 2.5 years later) suggests issues, and the final product confirms them: choppy, often rushed editing, highly uneven pacing and tone. The film is not a disaster but it is a mess, and clearly not the international epic the producers had envisioned. My two-star rating is, I fear, generous; I did enjoy much of the film, given my affinity for misguided epics (Caligula, Heaven´s Gate) and Jess Franco Eurotrash. Mainstream audiences beware.
Bathory has already become infamous as the most expensive Czech or Slovak production in history, costing some 300 million CZK ($20 million USD). The sacrifices of making an expensive film – bowing to conventions and playing it ‘safe´ in order to reach a wide audience – are painfully evident.
Bathory is playing at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům in its original English-language version; elsewhere in Prague, it is dubbed in Czech.