The film begins with a double death in a magnificent snow-covered wilderness that’s halfway between a biblical sacrifice and an addendum to the Book of Revelations. We’re then deftly transported back to the events that preceded it, starting with the joyous folk wedding of 16-year-old Verona (producer-thesp Deana Horvathova, Jakubisko’s real-life wife), which is interrupted by an attack of wolves. The few survivors include Verona, aided by her 10-year-old brother-in-law, Goran. On the same day, the bride loses her husband and gives birth to a daughter, Veronika, whom she betroths to Goran.
Ten years later, the reduced community celebrates the birthday of Veronika (Klara Issova) and her formal engagement to the now-adult Goran (Milan Bahul). Again, the festivities are disturbed by intruders — this time a snow-stranded female circus troupe and its crafty owner, Madina (Joachim Kemmer). After losing his harem to the local men at cards, Madina is forced to settle in the village. Veronika finds a more suitable companion in Madina’s young son, Michal (Matej Hadek).
The unions that result from the night of gambling are distinctly unconventional. An unorthodox priest worships a giantess; dwarf Juzek (Jiri Krytinar) bonds with an abandoned monkey (the one creature that can look up to him); a shepherd takes in two orphans; and a farmer is happily nagged and bedded by redheaded twins.
Trading farm crops for poppy fields, the villagers turn to smuggling for survival, attracting the attention of the law while introducing a disease that kills off the children. Thoroughly modern Michal, straddling old world and new (including an unnecessary and out-of-place episode involving a deal with Gypsies), draws wrath from all quarters and drives a wedge between Veronika and Goran. Michal’s murder clears the way for their long-planned wedding, a joyless shadow of Verona’s 20 years earlier. Following more disasters, the couple are hounded out of the village and hunted like a pair of animals.
The pic’s strong characterizations are rooted in a script that is both emotionally satisfying and filled with dialogue ranging from the earthy to the enigmatic. Jakubisko has an uncanny eye for casting, and shows off his actors to their best advantage, not by discovering any great depths of acting but by a painterly and detached use of camera.
Horvathova, a spunky actress with a devilish side, has the difficult task of conveying the message of man’s suffering under an unjust God, and the pic could do with a few less lingering shots of her anguish. But the cast generally excels, especially German actor Kemmer, whose eyes reveal an animal cunning, and Issova, a sensitive young actress with an inner glow. Czech actor Krytinar turns a supporting part into a strongly colored role.
Masterful editing almost eclipses the energetic and creative camerawork typical of a Jakubisko film, and the movie’s visual riches are raised to dizzying heights by a complex soundtrack. Scene segues and the wolf attack are especially accomplished.