Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems, and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Medieval (Jan Žižka, 2022), by Petr Jákl.
The most expensive Czech film ever made, Medieval turns the extraordinary life of one of the Czech Republic’s greatest national heroes into a muddled, embarrassing cinematic experience filled with the most hackneyed Hollywood cliches.
Set in 1402 after the death of Charles IV, Medieval follows the power struggle and political intrigues between King Sigismund of Hungary and half-brother Wenceslas IV (no, not that “good king Wenceslas”), both vying to become King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor as Europe is engulfed in chaos, poverty, and war.
Bohemia at the turn of the 15th century
In the midst of all this comes hardened mercenary and skillful warrior Jan Žižka (Ben Foster) who, entreated by the made-up character of Lord Boreš (Michael Caine), kidnaps the fiancée of scheming Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe), in order to help Wenceslas IV receive the benediction of the pope in Rome, unite Christianity and ascend to the throne.
That’s the gist of a movie whose generic English title is more appropriate than how it is being marketed in its home turf (“Jan Žižka”). This is not a story about the legendary warlord, nor does it dwell on the Hussite movement, Catholic crusades or Hussite wars. Although God, the Church and Jan Hus are frequently mentioned, with the latter making a guest appearance as we see him from afar preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel, the religious question is left on the sidelines.
In an interview with Radio Prague, director Petr Jákl justified his decision to set his story earlier in Žižka’s life, more than 15 years before he rose to prominence, by the fact that there already is a dedicated Czech-language trilogy, directed by filmmaker Otakar Vávra in the late 1950’s.
Not a very convincing argument, given that the vast majority of Medieval’s foreign viewers will probably never have heard of – or even less viewed – Vávra’s movies, and quite a shame given the momentous importance of these events in Czech and European history.
Obvious from the start, the fact that Medieval is no Žižka biopic should not be held against the movie. By setting the narrative at a time when little is known about him, Petr Jákl gave himself more creative freedom to tell the story he had in mind. Too bad he chose to tell a boring one.
“Death brings life”, is the bland, recurring motif of the film, a half-hearted and amateurish attempt to add some oxymoron-ic contrast to a superficial story that lacks creative originality, character depth, and narrative interest.
A member of the lower Bohemian gentry-turned mercenary-turned soldier-turned Hussite commander-turned national hero, Jan Žižka was renowned for being one of the greatest and most revered military leaders of the time, a key figure in the political and religious upheavals of the first half of 15th-century Europe, and is credited with several ingenious and visionary military innovations, including the transformation of the flail into a weapon of war or the famous Wagenburg tactic.
“One-eyed” Zizka would eventually lose his second eye later in life but continue to lead his men into battle, achieving historic victories and defeating armies from across Europe which were often much larger, better trained and equipped than his own, peasant-dominated troops.
Quite the subject matter, and it seems most directors would have a field day in creating a memorable character, however fictionalised or not, along the lines of a Czech-born-and-bred “Spartacus”, “Braveheart” or “Gladiator”. Think again.
Lacking charisma throughout the story, Medieval’s Žižka alternately appears like an orphan grownup boy suffering from the obligatory childhood trauma and daddy issues, or a ruthless mercenary with latent sadistic tendencies – as exemplified by a quite unnecessary head-chopping incident.
Passively spending the better part of the movie reluctantly doing what he’s told – namely kidnapping and murder with the odd blasphemy – Žižka inevitably takes on a victimised, remorseful look on cue, unconvincingly asking God for forgiveness for his actions. If he himself doesn’t look like he believes in his prayers, why should we?
“Death brings life”, Žižka mournfully mutters in the first scene, as he respectfully plants flower seeds by the corpse of an enemy he and his men brutally slayed. This farcical line of dialogue is mirrored, towards the end of the movie, in Žižka’s embarrassingly dull and insipid pre-battle “motivational” speech which, far from inspiring courage or honour, would probably have made me burst out laughing had I been among his troops – or crying, if forced to fight under his command.
A vapid action movie
An otherwise more than able actor, Ben Foster fails to save his character from demise, and is regularly surpassed by other protagonists. Cast-prize Michael Caine does his part well, no more, no less, as Lord Boreš, but is absent from most of the scenes, while Karel Roden’s Wenceslas IV could very plausibly have started humming “Mister Cellophane” without skipping a beat.
The baddies, by the laws of nature and contrast, are commonly better suited for this type of movie, and that’s the case here with Matthew Goode (King Sigismund), Til Schweiger (Lord Rosenberg) and Roland Møller (Torak, Sigismund’s head-goon), being somewhat more credible, if very stereotypical and expected, than the rest.
With an Elvish vibe slightly reminiscent of Lord of the Rings’ Arwen, Katherine – as one of the film’s two female characters and the key to the various political intrigues – is cast back and forth from one warring group to another scheming wanna-be monarch with a God complex like a hot potato whom no one really knows what to do with once they get it.
The embodiment of goodness and innocence until she sights trickling blood on her hands, Katherine moves like a travelling ombudswoman and hostage human rights rapporteur as she bears witness to all the injustice and misery of this cruel world. Considering the sorry hand she was dealt, actress Sophie Lowe does a fairly fine job at keeping her character afloat.
“I have to go home and sort this all out”, Katherine says in one scene, more reminiscent of an American teen who stayed a bit late after a fight with her boyfriend than a royal caught up in the tumultuous powerplays and warfare of early 15th-century Europe. “I have to go home and sort this all out”, was also my thought after viewing this disappointing movie, where almost every line of dialogue appears to have been AI-generated by a team of bored algorithms.
A few good points
Directed by former Czech Olympic judoka and stuntman Petr Jákl (Kajinek, Ghoul), Medieval stands out for its graphic combat sequences of the old ultra-violence which, although sometimes gratuitous, come as a welcome respite and distraction to scenes where characters actually need to talk to and interact with one another.
With a cast supported by several top sportsmen in secondary roles – including judo fighter Lukáš Krpálek, pentathlete David Svoboda, decathlete Roman Šebrle, boxer Rudolf Kraj, and wrestler Marek Švec – fighting choreographies are solidly crafted, and worth the watch.
In that regard, one of the fighting scenes does put an interesting spotlight on some of Žižka’s military innovations and tactical prowess, and it’s too bad more was not done in that vein.
Although veiled behind the expected “Middle Ages” colour palette and filter, the cinematography of the film – entirely shot in the Czech Republic – can be very compelling at times, highlighting the beauty of Bohemian forests, castles, and countryside without being over the top.
In an English-language interview released for Medieval’s release, director Petr Jákl explained what the project meant to him: “I thought it would be great to do a movie like Braveheart about a Czech hero, because he deserves that. I am a big Czech patriot and I wanted to show everybody what a great history we have, how beautiful our castles and landscapes are.”
Žižka does deserve such a movie. But Medieval is not it.