For a period that by some scholastic measures stretches a thousand years (500-1500 A.D.), the European Middle Ages still seem pretty dim in the popular imagination — almost literally so, since its first half is routinely termed he Dark Ages. What little most of us do know basically adds up to the idea that it wouldn’t be a nice place to visit and we certainly wouldn’t want to live there. The Fall of the Roman Empire kicked it off, with that little dip in civilization’s progress followed by plenty of barbarism, religious persecution, plagues, bloody conquests, superstition, and lack of reliable cell phone service.
Sure, eventually still-extant new cities began to be formed, stable nation-states established. But given such unsavory groups as Visigoths and Vandals, personalities like Attila the Hun, and such headlines as "Vikings Attack Paris" (885-86 weren’t the years for your romantic getaway there), I’ll take the modern era hands-down. We might see the world end under our watch, but hey, we’ll be sitting comfortably at home watching TV when it happens — not, er, being impaled or burnt at the stake.
Yet because there was so much chaos and superstition and so little written history during this period, particularly earlier on, the no doubt largely dirty, miserable reality of the Middle Ages has also long been semi-displaced by a romantic vision of knights, maidens, noble and magic adventure. Then as now, when things are rotten (to paraphrase the title of an old Mel Brooks sitcom about medieval life), you gotta have some escapism.
You won’t find the likes of "Ivanhoe," "A Knight’s Tale" or the current souped-up "Beowulf" in "The Medieval Remake," a five-week series curated by the Pacific Film Archive’s Susan Oxtoby. But you will find a fascinating assortment of some of the less commercially-minded, artistically imaginative, philosophically thoughtful treatments the era has gotten from international filmmakers over a 60-year span. From the severe to the surreal to the serene, these are highly individual visions from a clutch of great directors.
It starts with a series of B&W epics, the first two of which are famed world-cinema classics always worth a revisit: Tarkovsky’s1966 "Andrei Rublev," a hypnotic three-and-a-half hour meditation on the life and times of the titular 14th-century painter-monk; and Eisenstein’s operatic, propagandic 1933 ode to a legendary13th-century warrior-hero "Alexander Nevsky." Interestingly, both these filmmakers endured their own sort of Inquisition by the ever-fickle Soviet censors — Rublev "wasn’t released in the U.S.S.R. for nearly five years after its completion, and both before and after "Nevsky" Eisenstein had projects aborted or denounced by the bureaucrats.
Far less familiar to most will be the 1967 "Valley of the Bees," a smaller-scale (but still visually striking) medieval tale from Frantisek Vlacil — another future censorship victim — whose grim but stylistically dazzling Dark Ages tale "Marketa Lazarova" is considered by some the greatest Czech film ever made. This surprisingly homoerotic tale follows a boy pledged by his father to a strict monastery; in adulthood, he leaves, finally sick of the order’s ascetic, punitive notion of faith. His handsome best friend pursues him — ostensibly to bring him back in the fold, but there is some love other than the "divine" going on here. A whole lot of killing "for God" ensues.
Moving from the expansive yet stark to ornate fantasy, Fritz Lang’s two-part, nearly five-hour version of "The Nibelungen" is a silent behemoth that in 1924 must have seemed the last word in cinematic magnificence. It’s still pretty spectacular, what with Nordic gods, maidens fair, dragons and dwarfs in a slowly paced but endlessly eye-filling "super production." Similarly, fellow German F.W. Murnau’s 1926 "Faust" is a dizzyingly extravagant visualization of the moralistic legend, with Emil Jannings as a crafty Mephistopheles.
Several other films in the series deal with mythical tales in more physically modest but still strongly stylized fashion. There’s doubtless never been a more stripped-down version of the King Arthur saga than Robert Bresson’s 1974 "Lancelot of the Lake," in which the tragic end of the Round Table after the failed Grailquest is told in terse dialogue, stark imagery and pokerfaced performances. Lech Majewski’s 1980 "The Knight," which also played the PFA last month as part of a retrospective for this little-known but remarkable Polish director, takes a more surreal approach to its own tale of a knight’s doomed mystic quest. If you’re looking for eye-popping surrealism, however, nothing can top the imagination of Sergei Paradjanov. This late, great Georgian maker’s 1985 "Legend of Suram Fortress" (the first film he was allowed to make after he, too, endured Soviet-censor purgatory — 15cinematically inactive years’ worth, including a labor-camp stint)is a giddy series of ritualized tableau that are redolent equally of medieval religious art and The Cockettes.
A couple double bills offer up more sobering visions of Christianity’s violent Middle Ages. Together at last, Bresson’s 1962 "The Trial of Joan of Arc" and Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent "The Passion of Joan of Arc" offer a mega-dose of austere technique that honors both the saint’s steadfast faith and her persecutors’ intolerance. Two of Ingmar Bergman’s most famous achievements, "The Seventh Seal" and "The Virgin Spring, "likewise paint harsh portraits of a time when life was nasty, brutal and short — but where the average citizen might readily admit the possibility of a miracle, or even a one-on-one conversation with Death.
Last but far from least, the series ends with a restorative balm of generosity and gentleness. Roberto Rossellini’s 1950"The Flowers of St. Francis"is certainly the best representation of that particular fellow’s life ever filmed. (I doubt even Francis would be able to summon up much Christian charity toward Zefferelli’s hippiesploitation "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," and I am sorry to have to mention that more recently the saint has been portrayed by, gulp, Mickey Rourke.) But more than that, it’s a lovely, neo-realist styled celebration of the true Christlike values St. Francis followed: Joyful service, self-sacrifice and faith. In an era of "megachurches" and fanatical killing-for-God, people of every faith (or none) could stand to be reminded of Francis’ example.