I had heard of Countess Bathory but most of what I had heard is based on old stories that may not be true and the classic Hammer film Countess Dracula which is fiction. She’s apparently listed by the Guinness Book of Boring Pub Conversations as the biggest female serial killer in history but the figure of 650 victims is from an unverified claim. This film is an attempt to tell the story of her life more sympathetically. Her life story is being written by a fictional old monk Pastor Ponicky (Antony Byrne) and as he writes he narrates her story. One of the notable things he says at the beginning is that history is written by the victors hinting that this story cares nothing about what has been said about Erszebet Bathory (Anna Friel) in the history books. Since I know nothing about the history of Hungary I am in no position to judge the historical accuracy of this version but it certainly is entertaining.
The film has divided her life story into three chapters titled after the most important person in her life. The first part is titled Ferenc after her husband and it covers the early part of her life and her arranged marriage to Hungarian nobleman Ferenc Nadasdy (Vincent Regan). They have two daughters but when Ferenc rapes her while pregnant with their son she loses the baby. Ferenc doesn’t spend a lot of time with his wife after that but he does send her a Milanese painter that was a prisoner of the Ottomans that he defeated. This painter turns out to be Merisi Caravaggio (Hans Matheson) and Bathory wants him to paint her and her daughters. The two grew increasingly close and they explore their mutual fascination with human anatomy with the highly taboo dissection of corpses in Bathory’s hospital. Despite Merisi being gay the two of them fall for each other. She starts having strange dreams where she is with Merisi in his paintings. This not the only sign of her increasing mental instability and she confesses to Merisi that she is scared because she hears the sound of the sea in her head. Bathory starts acting more and more paranoid she accuses Merisi of cheating with his models. When Ferenc returns from war she has him send Merisi away
Ferenc is concerned about Bathory’s health so he hires a pagan herbalist to help her. Divulia is the title of the middle section named after the herbalist Divulia who promises that not only can she help treat Bathory’s condition but that she will bear a son and heir. The narrator Pastor Ponicky actually takes part in this part of the film investigating the suspicious reports of strange deaths from Bathory’s castle for the Catholic Church. He’s accompanied by a young neophyte called Cyril(Jirí Mádl). These two spies observe many suspicious things but conclude that Bathory is not doing them or at least not to the extent that the rumours claim. Not sure it’s a good idea to try and make the case in defence of Bathory through the agency of two fictional comedy relief spies who have roller skates, clockwork skis and some bizarre imaging apparatus.
Bathory has a few enemies in particular Juraj Thurzo (Karel Roden) a nobleman who fought alongside her husband and whose land adjoins her own. When Ferenc dies of his injuries during one battle Thurzo sets about undermining Bathory. His wife dopes up the potion Divulia makes for Bathory and instead of easing her symptoms it sends her into a full psychotic breakdown and she kills one of her servants. She blames Divulia who gets out of the castle. Divulia then gets captured by by Thurzo who has her tortured and takes out her tongue
Thurzo convinces King Mathias (Franco Nero) that action has to be taken against Bathory. This starts the third chapter of her life titled Thurzo. Thurzo is Palatine of the region and begins an investigation, collecting evidence from locals. He raids her castle arresting four of her servants. They are questioned under torture then quickly put to death while Bathory is put under house arrest. King Mathias is furious with Thurzo for killing the only witnesses since the evidence of the locals cannot be used to try a noblewoman. But Thurzo does not want her tried for then she would be executed and her lands seized by the crown and he has done a deal with her sons-in-law and her son to retain her property and title.
This a strange rambling film that takes it time to develop the character of Countess Bathory and Anna Friel is brilliant in the role but apart from the ever reliable Karel Roden as Thurzo the other characters are amateur dramatics. It did give a context to her life story during a chaotic time in history of Europe. The film never goes as far as suggesting that Bathory is completely innocent but it does still have her as a victim of a conspiracy. Overall the film was okay but I did find my attention wandering a bit.