Upon seeing the trailer for the new Czech drama Křižáček (Little Crusader), I was instantly sold: an arty, realistic take on the medieval genre, I had visions of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, which detailed the painfully awkward battles undertaken by knights in full suits of armor (director Václav Kadrnka’s previous film, Eighty Letters, also evoked Bresson – L’Argent in particular).
But upon seeing Křižáček proper, instead of Bresson, it evokes another arthouse favorite director: Taiwan-based filmmaker Ming-liang Tsai, who is notorious for testing the patience of his audience and holding his shots far longer than necessary.
One of Tsai’s most recent films, Stray Dogs, concludes with a 25-minute shot of its characters staring at a wall (conservative estimate). It was unanimously praised and awarded at film festivals around the world. I can’t besmirch it, either. It’s art, poetry.
And so is Křižáček, though on an admittedly smaller scale. Kadrnka’s film is critic-proof and fine festival fare, and it even won the Crystal Globe at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, deservedly or not. But when it hits Czech cinemas next month, some audience members are likely to revolt (the user reviews on CSFd.cz, the Czech equivalent to IMDb, are already getting heated).
This is a film so sparse that nothing is explicitly stated, and everything – story, themes, character motivation – must be indirectly inferred. A knight played by Karel Roden is searching for his son in medieval times, yes – but everything else is open to interpretation.
Picture the scene: the young boy Jeník, played by Matouš John, has dressed up in his child’s armor and left home in broad daylight, on foot, while his parents are asleep. Roden’s father sets out after him on horseback at some point after, perhaps the next day, with an embroidered likeness of the boy made by his wife (Eliška Křenková).
Roden’s knight (called Bořek in festival notes, but unnamed onscreen) is somehow right on the boy’s trail – encountering people that have seen him, but cannot say where he has gone – despite endless shots of him idling through the wilderness that create the illusion of an aimless journey.
He eventually meets up with another knight (played by Aleš Bílík) headed to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades, who agrees to help search for his son as they’re headed in the same direction. If the boy can’t be found, he tells, him, then Bořek can join him on his journey to the Holy Sepulchre.
Based on a poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický (Svojanovský křižáček), which must have contained more story elements than are seen in the film, the theme seems to tie into a children’s interpretation of – and even role in – the Crusades, in which the Catholic Church fought to reclaim Holy Lands from Islamic rule.
The boy, we can infer, has run away to fight – blinded by Christian ideals and equipped with the notion that his youthful purity will prevail – and numerous other scenes depict children playing with swords or reenacting scenes of battle.
Roden’s old knight, perhaps, has fought this battle and seen its horrors, and rightly fears for his son. And yet Bílík’s character, travelling to fight for the first time, may also be a young man in need of a kind of salvation.
But you can draw your own conclusions – there’s simply not enough here to make any firm statements.
Instead, the film is a poetic grind with long, unbroken shots that seem to last longer than they should, and a sparse, aimless narrative that deliberately prevents viewers from becoming involved with what is, at least initially, a compelling premise.
What helps the film is that those lengthy shots, taken by cinematographer Jan Baset Střítežský on location in the Puglia region of Italy, are quite often beautiful, especially in a the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio (which reminds of another sparse drama that played at Karlovy Vary, A Ghost Story). The evocative score by Irena Havlová and Vojtěch Havel is also entrancing, threatening to draw viewers in while the story keeps them at bay.
Křižáček is a piece of art first and a narrative feature second, and on that level it works just fine for viewers who know what they’re getting into. Others beware.
The film will se release throughout the Czech Republic from August 3.