Color, 2009, 97m.
Directed by Constantin Werner
Starring Winter Ave Zoli, Csaba Lucas, Lea Mornar, Vera Filatova, Veronika Bellova
Vanguard (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

Virtually impossible to categorize, this dreamy Czech period fantasy marks the second film from director Constantin Werner, over a decade after his stylish debut feature, Dead Leaves. This time the story is deeply rooted in pre-Christian Eastern European history and mythology as it charts the unusual story of Libuse, a fair-haired tribal queen with mystical inclinations whose mostly lesbian friends and fellow warriors include a fiesty Amazon, Vlasta (Mornar), and her two siblings, Teta (Filatova) and Kazi (Bellova). Their matriarchal pagan society becomes torn apart by outside invaders who threaten to take their land, forcing Libuse to marry her longtime (nonexclusive) lover, Premysl (Lucas), who doesn't take his ascent to power as graciously as she had hoped. More conflicts erupt as Libuse and her fellow women take their places in history with a powerful lake at the center of their region playing a crucial role in Libuse's future.

Shot in the Czech Republic in perfectly chosen areas that could have easily sprung from ancient wood carvings, The Pagan Queen is an opulent-looking production that will prove to be an acquired taste for many viewers. The slow, romantic pacing contains elements of overt fantasy and a sprinkling of brief but surprisingly fiesty sex scenes, but the art house execution makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly where it's going. According the DVD, the inclusion of supernatural elements caused something of a stir in its native country, but overall this is a subdued and meditative experience that seems heavily inspired by low-key medieval films like Bresson's Lancelot du Lac. The actors are something of a mixed bag, with the lovely Zoli and Mornar handling their demanding roles rather well and anchoring all of their scenes with a firm hand; unfortunately Lucas doesn't fare remotely as well, offering a clumsy, often cringe-inducing performance that seems too lunkheaded to justify his romantic hero status at first and his character transformation during the second half of the story. Surprisingly, the lush cinematography is the work of Bobby Bukowski, an interesting talent whose credits range all the way from Arlington Road to Boogeyman.

Though it earned a theatrical release in Europe, The Pagan Queen comes straight to DVD in America courtesy of Vanguard, an interesting label whose sporadic output is usually worth watching even if their source materials usually tend to be problematic. Fortunately that isn't the case here as the presentation looks just fine, with crisp detail in the delicate landscape shots and the surround audio adequately capturing the modest sound mix. There's really nothing to complain about on the technical end here at all. Apart from a handful of cross-promotional trailers, extras include a director's intro (with a female companion translating his English comments in Czech), the theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary with the director in which he's also translated from English into Czech, a halting process that may be too fractured for many English-speaking listeners. It's worth sticking with if you're interested in the film, however, as he goes into detail about his own background that led to being given the project, scouting for locations, the original source story, and the film's controversial reception. Quite an interesting discovery if you're looking for something a little different with a hypnotic pace all its own.

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