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Director: Péter Bergendy
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Do the words “homeland security” make you feel protected? Do they make your skin crawl? Do you look around you in a bustling airport for unattended packages, or are you most interested in finding the food court? We may still say “It’s a free country,” but what citizens of the United States, and other countries as well, are more or less resigned to is the “new normal” of walking around in their stockinged feet as their shoes are x-rayed and their bags are randomly searched at the airport, going to museums that require they pass through metal detectors, or looking idly at Google Earth to see what their homes look like through the surveillance satellites and cameras that never sleep. We are all suspects now in an international game of terrorism, something the characters of Hungarian director Péter Bergendy’s second feature film must understand or face the consequences.
Hungarian screenwriting phenom Norbert Köbli has written a crackling thriller in which the main character is suspicion. Channeling the murderous paranoia of Stalinist rule in the year after the failed 1956 Hungarian counterrevolution, The Exam shows how oppressive regimes tend to eat their own tails by focusing on loyalty tests that were mandated for even the most zealously pro-Communist operatives in government.
The subject who is being tested on Christmas Eve—importantly, without his knowledge—is András Jung (Zsolt Nagy), a handsome young handler for the secret police. The opening credits cleverly show the double life Jung leads, toggling between close-ups of homey Christmas items like tree ornaments and candles and such tools of the spy trade as headphones and a gun being laid out for use. Jung poses as a German instructor who gives private lessons at an apartment maintained by the government as a less conspicuous way for Jung to contact his informants. We see him arrive home and carefully remove a matchstick he placed between the doors to inform him whether someone entered the apartment in his absence. He prepares to receive some of the informants he has been running by getting his hidden tape recorder and microphone set up and checking his list of agents. Before anyone arrives, his mentor Pál Márko (János Kulka) pays him a visit, inviting him for dinner and giving Jung a gift from his wife Janka (Mária Varga)—a ceramic angel to hang on his Christmas tree.
Thus begins Jung’s test. Márko goes across the street to an apartment where a surveillance team is set up to watch Jung, record his phone conversations from the tap placed in his telephone handset, and listen to his conversations with the informants he receives through the microphone hidden in the ceramic angel. The test proceeds uneventfully, and Márko is ready to call an end to it. The official test-runner, Emil Kulcsár (Péter Scherer), a nerdy, by-the-book member of the team who seems to idolize Márko, argues that they are required to watch the subject for 12 consecutive hours. Márko is dismissive of Kulcsár, consistently failing to remember his name, and wants to flaunt regulations so that he can get on with having a nice Christmas at home. That delightful possibility is definitively quashed when an unknown woman (Gabriella Hámori) arrives at Jung’s home and makes passionate love with him as the microphones and embarrassed spies catch every sigh.
Brutal and action-oriented, as befits his status as a war hero and early Soviet supporter, Márko follows up every lead, identifying the woman as Éva Gát, a music student with a questionable past whom Jung met at a concert. He becomes convinced that Jung is in love with her, and wonders how he can warn his surrogate son about the danger she poses to Jung’s position with the secret police. However, Jung is not the only agent in trouble; every main character, including the hapless Emil, has a personal, emotional tie that could jeopardize their position. Like many other films, books, and other works of art that deal with state oppression (e.g., Nineteen Eighty-Four), The Exam posits the personal and individual as major threats to the ruling order. As Jung tells a priest he has recruited to spy on another priest, guns are not the only weapons that can be used against the state.
In addition to the period detail, what I enjoyed so much about this exciting, cat-and-mouse film is that it was hard to decide who was the cat and who were the mice. In fact, from the landladies and enforcers who follow the orders of Márko and Emil to the humorless, intimidating Jung, we are never really sure whom to trust, what anyone is feeling, and what actions are real or staged. The actors play more than one role within their basic character, aware of living their cover stories, how they must behave to accord with the rules of the test, and holding their personal identities like precious water in a leaky bucket. Nagy particularly impresses as a cold operative with an equally passionate flipside and the capacity for sudden violence when his survival is threatened.
Like Jung, we, too, are being tested, asked to examine our loyalties by which character we identify with and root for. In the final scene, Márko and his wife finally sit down to Christmas dinner. The place setting for Jung remains empty until Janka at last removes it. The state has swallowed the personal, and we are left to consider the true cost of the “new normal” to our own lives.
The Exam won the Gold Hugo in the 2012 CIFF New Directors Competition.
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Director/Screenwriter: Benedek Fliegauf
By Roderick Heath
Films that use the ideas of the science fiction genre to genuinely serious investigatory or poetic ends are pretty few and far between in today’s cinema. If they are taking those ideas seriously at all, it’s more likely to be on a conceptual, rather than psychological or emotional, plane. A coldly beautiful and quietly dazzling exercise in psychosexual provocation, as well as a meditation on mortality and personality with a blend of genre with high Freudian perversity, Womb easily bests the last mainstream film to tackle the moral and humanitarian ramifications of cloning, 2010’s unfocused and soapy Never Let Me Go, for narrative density and effect. Fleigauf’s film expands its ideas with genuinely unsettling and affecting permutations that retain a touch of the otherworldly and yet also proceeds with a nerveless logic.
Strangely, Womb has gained little attention, though not too surprisingly, as it’s inevitably noncommercial; I only came across it by chance, dumped onto DVD, in spite of sporting two excellent young stars: Eva Green, an actress who embodies something intelligent yet provocative and insinuatingly decadent even in the most humdrum of parts, and the rubbery-limbed Matt Smith, currently inhabiting the role of Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s been a good year for dumped Green films, also including the lesser but still interesting Cracks.
At the outset of Fleigauf’s film, Green is a solitary woman sitting on the balcony of her remote house, perched on stilts in the midst of a tidal plain, cradling a belly bulging with pregnancy, thanking, in voiceover, someone for this gift. Fliegauf then jumps back many years in the past to when Green’s character, Rebecca, was nine years old (played at that age by Ruby O. Fee), and staying for a vacation with her grandfather. She encountered a boy, Thomas (Tristan Christopher), when he took a break from being chased about by local hooligans to say hello, and they swiftly became inseparable friends, with Rebecca practically absorbed by Thomas’ parents, Ralph and Judith (Mike Leigh regulars Peter Wight and Lesley Manville), into their family. The two children spent an idyllic vacation in spite of the typically northern European, tempestuous, and glowering atmosphere of the seaside locale, with its pebbly beaches and beautifully blasted shores and sands, until Rebecca finally had to leave to join her mother who was taking a job in Tokyo. The night before she leaves, Tom announces he’s going to see her off and give her a going-away present, but he never shows up.
Rebecca returns over a decade later, having gained a degree and a profession as a designer of software for acoustic devices, to take over her since-deceased grandfather’s house and to look for Tom. When she finds him, he’s grown into the agreeable adult form of Smith. When Rebecca finds his current abode, still in the same seaside town that he loves too much to leave, she finds Rose (Natalia Tena) sitting on the floor in her undies, reading a book. But she’s just a casual pick-up, and she gets frustrated and stomps out when faced with Rebecca and Tom’s instantaneously resumed mutual fascination: “Maybe you two should start sniffing each other.” Tom gives Rebecca the present she was supposed to receive, a matchbox containing a snail, now long dead.
Tom, who is now a biology student and an activist, is planning a demonstration at a new cloning centre called Sparkling Park, and has a crate full of cockroaches ready to release to cause alarm amongst the security staff. Rebecca joins him for this jaunt, but when she gets him to pull his car over so she can go take a pee in the grass, and he starts to get out after her, she hears the unmistakeable sound of another car hitting him at speed. Fleigauf and Green pull off this scene with terrific dispassion and a proper sense of the jarring shock of sudden, complete, irretrievable loss registered in the ever so slightly widening eyes of Rebecca as she surveys Tom’s broken body. Except that it’s not irretrievable, not anymore. As Tom’s parents grieve, Rebecca retains her sphinx-like smile, and presents them with a solution: that they clone Tom, and she will act his surrogate mother. Judith rejects the notion, stating that, “We’re atheists…but that doesn’t mean we can rummage in our deceased’s grave…we are not farm animals…we accept what life gives us!” Rebecca presses ahead, however, going to Sparkling Park, where Rose, who works there, catches sight of her. Months later, Rebecca gives birth to Tom redux, and begins to raise him as her own son.
What end such an act can possibly have, and all its manifold and troubling imputations, looms with constant tension throughout Womb, as Fleigauf describes young Tommy’s growth from bulge in Rebecca’s belly to upright young man. Whether Rebecca can continue to treat Tommy as simply her own child who happens to also be giving the genetic material of her great love a second chance at life, or if she’s nursing a darker, if still possibly inchoate, plan to make him a substitute, and what his reaction to the inevitable, practically Greek tragic moment of realisation will be is the crucial question, one that hovers as not entirely resolved until the very end.
In the meantime, Rebecca keeps the truth of Tommy’s origins from him, and when he has an encounter with another cloned youngster, Dima (Gina Stiebitz), he learns of the intense social hatred toward clones. Other concerned mothers, worried when Rebecca invites Dima unknowingly to Tommy’s birthday party, meet with her and explain, in a note-perfect transposition of such anxieties from more familiar worrisome types, how they don’t want their children exposed to the unknown influence of these strange, unnatural entities. But word soon reaches the parents of Tommy’s friends about his genetic origins, thanks to Rose, and when Tommy asks Rebecca why nobody came to his party, Rebecca only says, “Because they’re stupid!” The next day she packs up and moves them both out to the remote house glimpsed at the beginning, where Rebecca continues to live until Tommy is grown, burgeoning into a man eerily similar to his earlier incarnation, with a deep interest in nature and a loopy sense of childish fun. When he moves a girlfriend from college, Monica (Hannah Murray), into the house, the stage is set for possibly the strangest ménage-a-trois, seething beneath the surface and constantly sensed by all parties without quite taking shape, in cinema history.
Fliegauf maintains a tremendous formal control over Womb, which could easily have toppled into torpid psychodrama or arty sterility. His film bears a distinct resemblance, in setting as well as style and the chilly anthropological deconstruction, to the early work of Roman Polanski. Shot in the Sylt region in Germany, near the Danish border, with its many gradations in hazy beauty, the setting presents a perfect barometer for the oedipal drama unfolding with the mood of increasing isolation from the real world. As far as films that use natural settings to define and dominate the mood of a film, Womb stands far above just about any work of recent cinema, except ironically Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010).
The womb of the title is both Rebecca’s physical womb, of course, cradle and battlefield of this experiment in human intransigence and longing, but also the house into which she moves to continue her experiment in peace. Fliegauf pieces together telling detail as he effectively describes a warped family situation with cues, usually subliminal and yet constantly accumulating, occasionally to overflowing, as when Rebecca offers herself to a barely adolescent Tommy in a fashion he doesn’t at all understand. Simultaneously, there’s a distinct echo of biblical myth in the very Garden of Eden where the second-generation man Cain must marry his mother Eve as a precursor to new life: Rebecca retreats into her own little Eden. Images of mother and infant bearing distinct similarities to those seen in The Tree of Life flow by, except whereas there is mystery in familiar human growth—no one’s ever quite sure what a child will look like as it grows—here there is a chilly, preordained sense of how Tommy is going to grow up, what he’ll think, feel, what he’ll be excited by—and what he’ll be turned on by.
There’s a particularly keen condensation of parental affection, childish destructiveness, and unspoken suspicion in a movement in which Rebecca gives Tommy a toy robotic dinosaur, as cruelly adorable as possible, which Tommy along with a boy he befriends then buries in the sand: it’s the sort of thing a boy his age does to toys, an act that’s usually thoughtless but that parents can feel is somehow a rejection of them, and imbued here with another layer as Tommy acts out a detestation of simulacrums. Fliegauf relies on the audience blanching at a lifelike thing being treated in such a fashion, aware that Tommy himself would be considered such a thing, requiring Rebecca’s retreat to the edge of the earth to pillow him from that treatment. “Dima is the victim of artificial incest!” one of the village mothers says in a key, wryly amusing, yet highly discomforting scene: “Her mother gave birth to her own mother!” The ground seems set for another portrayal of small-mindedness and reactionary impulses through a gimmicky prism, but Fliegauf loads the situation thanks to the awareness that Rebecca’s intentions for her own clone are not entirely wholesome. Rebecca, sensing the danger of being caught outside the herd, immediately acquiesces and plays along. Where exactly all the ethics review panels went to in this brave new world isn’t stated, but it’s clear the act of cloning has already been commercialised out of sight, as one of the reasons Tom was protesting the cloning centre was its plan to make most of its money out of “cyberbitches”, cloned prostitutes, and endlessly reproduced household pets.
At the outset, Womb seems cast in the mould of something like Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1999) in portraying Rebecca and Tom’s intense connection as something almost sublime and preordained, and Tom’s quirky energy seems quite in line with that familiar variety of lively young man. Smith, however, has a gift for suggesting something slightly alien and asocial in his characters as well as charming and zany. When Rebecca walks back into Tom’s life after years, she doesn’t even need to say her name for him to recognise her, and soon they’re so fixated on each other that they completely ignore anyone else in their world. Their initial reuniting is painfully brief, so Rebecca seems to hope that this innate bond will be sustained as Tommy grows into a man. Yet, for the most part, she plays the almost-perfect mother, with a job that allows her to work from home and continue constant interaction; when Tommy’s grown, she tiptoes into his bedroom to lay down a breakfast tray for him and Monica, whom she’s never met. Monica’s arrival starts a breakdown in Rebecca’s equilibrium: she’s lived without any kind of sexual contact all these years—it’s revealed in the most alarming fashion possible that she’s still a virgin—and her still-manifest physical desire for Tommy, and, it becomes increasingly clear in spite of all his presuppositions, his for her, begins to boil over.
Incest seems to be emerging as a new subject for would-be provocateurs in the artier cinema brackets, whilst films that try to describe and encompass the repetitive chains of birth, growth, and creation that govern human life seem to reflect a current wave in the zeitgeist: some of the year’s other top films, include The Tree of Life, Hanna, Attenberg, and Mysteries of Lisbon, all present some consistent thematic concerns with this developmental theme, as children become products of, and vessels for, the ambitions and mistakes of their parents. Rarely has the most profound taboo been approached with such supple, nerveless skill as in this film, whilst the theme is carefully leavened by the story frame: there is awareness that Tommy is not a natural son as it would once have been defined, and yet he’s bound to Rebecca in the most intimate way as a product of her body, if not of her genes. Whether Tommy retains an actual bond with Rebecca that transcends the liminal, or whether he’s just responding to endless subtle signals in her manner over the years, is impossible to discern; nor, is it easy to tease apart the specific ramifications of the situation it presents, with their scifi impetus, from any normal mother’s relationship with a grown son who in some ways personifies her husband grown young again. In any event, Womb is a film infused with a sonorous cool and an emotional intensity that builds to an inevitable outburst, which comes when his other mother, Judith, turns up at the house, looking like a gorgon of gnawed conscience, not speaking a word as she partakes of this remake of her son and reels away with profound and baleful knowledge.
This episode lodges a fresh disquiet in Tommy which Smith realises as a marvellous climax of actorly slow burn. Tommy, Rebecca, and Monica are at the breakfast table, his final exhaustion with Rebecca’s evasions and estrangement exploding as he slams a clogged salt shaker repeatedly upon the table and turns the kitchen upside down until he procures a handful of salt to smother his meal, before pointing to his mother and saying the fateful words in regards to Judith, “I know her.” Monica’s pathos in trying to plead for her lover to emerge from the bathroom where he locks himself and realising that she’s the superfluous point in this triangle, causes her to flee. At last, Rebecca delivers self-knowledge to Tommy, and he rests for a bleak and terrible moment on an edge of powerful feeling that will resolve either in matricide or sex—either way, a primal taboo. As it happens, sex prevails. Tommy finally ends Rebecca’s virginity and then flees the house, having fulfilled exactly what Rebecca wanted—to have a real child by Tommy—and finally free to find some purpose for himself. The mood seems at last unbearable, except that in the final shot, as Tommy disappears into the murk, Rebecca switches on a light within the house: now, at last, each is only just recommencing life. Womb is a strange, troubling, fascinating waking dream.
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Director: Miklós Jancsó
By Roderick Heath
All films are dialectic between cut and shot, edit and vision, duration and severance, but what kind of conversation they might have can be very different to the one we’re used to. Miklós Jancsó helped bring attention to the cinema of his narrative Hungary in the mid 1960s with eye-catching films that emphasised the shot over the edit, his drifting camera absorbing events without the traditional grammar of scene structures and narrative cues. Martin Scorsese’s rule about cinema being what’s in and out of the frame was never more true than in a work in which the frame’s capacity to move, rather than the capacity to move between frames, is celebrated. Red Psalm, which gained Jancsó a Best Director prize at Cannes, represented an extreme version of his efforts: consisting of only 26 separate shots, it drinks in physical context, unity of drama, and community action in a fashion that’s utterly radical and strange, and yet, in the way it plays out, hypnotically natural and fluid. Red Psalm never stops moving—it simply moves in a different fashion to most films.
Red Psalm, the original Hungarian title of which means “And the People Still Ask,” is often described as a musical, and there’s some truth to that, though not in the style the phrase usually suggests. In spite of the long takes, it’s not one of those passive-aggressive films full of intolerable static patches; rather it’s defined by constant, restless motion and activity. It’s a work that wouldn’t and didn’t upset Hungary’s Warsaw Pact government of the time, and yet it’s more than merely a hymn to official socialism past and present; it trafficks in the future, the what-might-be as well as the fait accompli, and to revolutionary traditions domestic and foreign. It’s no mere artistic grovel, but a morally engaged film that tries to articulate the vital moment when the powerless try to create a space in which they have power. Likewise, the English title draws out one aspect of the tapestry texture of the film: there’s an attempt to purify the corrupt, power-serving church and return to a grassroots sense of faith that’s inextricable from the earth and communal identity, a kind of Christianity reconnected to nature worship.
Detailing a fictional, but exemplary situation some time in the 1890s, Red Psalm portrays a collective of peasants attempting to resist all attempts by landowners, police, and finally, the military, to force them to sell their farm produce in the same way they always have, for a fixed (in both senses of the term) price to oligarchic landowners. When the film commences, the collective has already formed and made its declaration, and are waiting by a small chapel for the inevitable pressure that will come from the powers that be. The location is the agricultural flatlands, beautiful and spacious, ripe and giving. The peasants read a letter from Engels to the Hungarian socialists to bolster their stand, whilst haughty, bossy militiamen, cadets, and a bailiff gather to try to intimidate them: a quartet of young officers patronise them, asking if they understood Engels’ letter. The bailiff gives out drinks as a goodwill gesture, but the peasants pour it on the ground. The bailiff reiterates the usual payment in money and wheat for their produce, but one of the militiamen sets fire to the cash and the rest begin to walk away after being taunted by the peasant women, allowing the rest of the collective to grab the bailiff, stuff him in a sack, and drag him away. The peasants are barely differentiated by names or biographies, but some begin to emerge in individuality: one, Balint (József Madaras), maintains a conscientious and calm probity, whilst a woman in a blue dress and headscarf is the most forceful figurehead of the collective’s purpose.
The unifying motif is music, for a band of troubadours keep up a constant stream of tunes and anthems to fire the spirit of the collective and taunt the oppressors back. Jancsó pays sly tribute to Hollywood musicals in the bold costuming of the major female figures and, in places, the way the community interacts evokes images from the likes of Oklahoma!, The Band Wagon, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The mood and method of this musical is, like those films, a blend of high style and naturalism, but essayed in an entirely different fashion. The tunes come entirely from the people on screen, played on location and engaged with in a realistic fashion, with people breaking into dance and song when they feel like it.
As the collective begins to swell in numbers, incorporating, it seems, all the folk from the nearest village, likewise the number of soldiers brought in to threaten them grows. One of the young officers, who has been ordered to kill the leadership of the collective, is instead intrigued, especially by a trio of young women who strip and continue to protest topless. He gives up his revolver to one of his fellow officers, who then casually lets off shots into the collective, wounding one woman in the arm, and then shooting dead his wayward fellow. But he revives when a peasant maid gives him a kiss, a fairytale inversion of the Sleeping Beauty plot. The wounded girl’s injury transforms from blood into a red ribbon. A count comes to speak to them with calm and friendly words, droning on about thriftiness and moral capital, but then spontaneously keels over, stone-cold dead, sparking the outrage of his imperious wife.
It’s not just power and commerce that’s at stake here, but the power of resurrection and annihilation. The countess whips up the soldiers and her servants to herd the peasants into a huddling mass, whilst the priest from the chapel reads out cant. For a moment the collective is contained, but then some of the stronger labourers begin cracking whips, scaring the horses and the priest. Balint tries to restrain assaults on the church, gaining him the disapproval of his fellows: they, listening to the priest’s righteous recital of a letter from the Pope filled with bigotry (“Here are heretics, pagans, Jews, and other denominations, but you my flock did not turn against the guilty, but against the whole of society.”) bundle him away and set his chapel on fire. They then hold a candlelight mass where they pray for such things as “Protect us from widowhood…protect us from immigration…Save us O Lord from starvation…Save us O Lord from the holes in our boots…”
Yet Jancsó also acknowledges the deep roots of faith in the soil and the labours of humans, as his camera passes from a young woman ringing bells for mass to others carrying religious paraphernalia onto a table loaded with the bounty and sustenance of the peasants’ labour, including a loaf of bread that one of the women carries as if it were a holy talisman. Jancsó, whilst playing games with the movie musical tradition, also channels the nature imagery of specific forebears in the Eastern bloc film tradition—Dovzhenko and Paradjanov—but unlike the latter filmmaker, he doesn’t mystify even whilst evoking mysticism. Later, when disavowing use of weapons and the implements of violence, one of the men quotes the Book of Isaiah about beating swords into ploughshares. The line between Christian sacrament and pagan fertility ritual all but disappears as the film progresses. An old man listens with apparent joy to the words of the group, but then cuts his wrist and bleeds to death, and Balint covers him with his shirt: why is an absolute mystery, unless it’s to not have to live past the moment of perfect joy he’s found. One of the militiamen, Janos Nagy (Márk Zala), is inducted into the peasants’ number with a ritualistic fervor as women touch his head with branches as he disowns his evil acts.
Whilst Jancsó pays overt tribute to the social struggles of Hungary—referenced several times in the film are the words of poet Sándor Petőfi, who was executed for involvement in the nationalist uprisings of 1848, the events of which the story evokes—he also encompasses references to the French Revolution, as the group sings their rewritten version of “La Marseillaise,” as well as American labour and social struggles, when the collective’s band plays “Charlie Is My Darling,” a Civil War-era song. It’s very hard, in spite of the historical setting, to avoid thinking of ’60s counterculture protests, especially the 1967 march on the Pentagon, when the young women bare their breasts and advance fearlessly on the soldiers who are momentarily sparked to excitable desertion, running away in a cheering mass after chasing the girls to get an eyeful. Flower power is often on display, and more codified images of spiritual and physical fecundity, too, as when the young women hold fowl to their bosoms and the villagers circle in unified labour to stamp the chaff out of wheat. The whole landscape is charged with richness and also tension, for even the most joyous moments for the collective usually have the ever-massing, encircling soldiers waiting in grey lines around their own ranks. The swaggering CO of a new detachment of troops explicitly mocks the collective as “cowards hiding behind infants,” and a steam train loaded with soldiers noses its way into the hitherto preindustrial landscape. But increasingly large numbers of the soldiers are joining the collective, too.
Finally, the expanded insurrection meets in a huge celebratory mass around a maypole. For a moment, all the soldiers join their celebration, but most are then scared back into formation by their officers and end up gunning down the group. The victorious oligarchs drink a toast, and the young, resurrected officer descends into a river dyed red with the blood of the slaughtered community. The soldiers are blessed by the priest, and the original core members of the collective are lined up to be shot together. One of the troubadours stabs the bailiff in the stomach and defies the bullets of the young officers, which bring him down only slowly as he struggles to finish his song. The remaining members of the group are executed, the nudity of the young women now seeming less redolent of hippie chick freedom than of the nakedness of the gas chamber’s victims. But the woman in the blue dress, now dressed in a red contemporary fashion, pulls a soldier from his saddle, takes his revolver, and begins gunning down the rest of the army, until they’re all sprawled as dead as her comrades.
Jancsó’s success in synthesising a cinematic style that is at once utterly down to earth and unified in both the technical and aesthetic senses, realistic, without a special effect or the fan dance of regular editing styles, and yet highly surreal and charged with magic and possibility, is undeniable. Many directors have attempted in recent years to pepper their films with extended tracking shots with varying degrees of stylistic and thematic intent and success, but they are mostly just showing off. For Jancsó, it’s the best way to describe the world he’s envisioning, one of harmony and structure, group struggle and the endurance of idealism. His film, rather than a film of a dance, is a dance itself. l
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Márta Mészáros
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The fall of the Berlin Wall opened not only borders and opportunities to the Soviet bloc countries that, one by one, would gain their independence, but also aired the deep wounds inflicted by one “comrade” on another in exchange for a few privileges—permission to take trips out of the country, a bigger apartment, a job promotion. I was riveted by Timothy Garton Ash’s memoir The File, in which he details what he discovered when he read through the file the East German government had been keeping on him, including that his lover had been spying on him. The Last Report on Anna takes a look at Hungary’s own repressiveness through the eyes of real-life political progressive Anna Kéthly.
The film starts in 1989, in a Budapest café, where Péter Faragó (Ernõ Fekete) is talking with his nephew while the funeral of Soviet-backed leader János Kádár blares from the café’s television. Péter says that things will come out and that it is better if they come from him first. We are then transported back to 1973. Péter is talking in the same café with a functionary for the Hungarian government who wants him to persuade Anna Kéthly (Enikö Eszenyi) to return from self-imposed exile in Belgium. It seems Anna, a minister representing the Social Democrats in Hungary’s Parliament before the Communists took over in the late ’40s and arrested her, has continued to criticize the Communist government and is causing it some trouble in the international community. Péter, a professor of Romantic literature, was chosen for the assignment because Anna had a passionate love affair with his uncle Laci (Jákob Ladányi), and it is hoped that her lingering affection for Laci will cause her to drop her guard with Péter and be persuaded to return. Péter is offered incentives—a passport, clearance to lecture at a literary conference in Belgium, a telephone—and eager to see a bit of the world and gain some professional prestige, he accepts and spends a long day pouring over Anna’s government file to learn tidbits he can use to get close to her. He visits his uncle before he leaves, and Laci gives him a carved wooden box to take to Anna.
Péter is, it seems, happily married to Kati (Gabriella Hámori), but when he sees a group of flower children in a park in Brussels, he feels reborn and attracted to the pretty, carefree women of the group. This attraction takes a back seat to his assignment. He meets his handler in Belgium, Klári (Adél Kováts), and is told how often he must report the content of his meetings with Anna. She tells him to bring Anna flowers. And so Péter sets off to woo Anna and earn his state-sponsored privileges.
The 78-year-old director of this film, Márta Mészáros, has explored the vagaries of sexual politics and government repression during her career. This film, while offering flashbacks to Anna’s political activities, including impassioned pleas against racial laws being imposed upon the Jews of Hungary, and brief glimpses of the horrors of her three-year incarceration beginning in 1950, is much more interested in sexual duplicity. The early attraction of Péter to a hippie girl is merely a moment in the film that is never acted upon, but it suggests everything to follow. Péter, who Anna and her companion Magda (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) say looks very like Laci, deceives them both and awakens Anna’s nostalgia for Hungary and Laci; we get a repeated scene throughout the film of Anna taking a multicolored, chiffon scarf, which was in Laci’s wooden box, and letting the air catch and billow it out behind her as younger versions of she and Laci sit on the pier of a lake. Anna’s love is undying, but Magda reminds her that Laci did not leave Hungary with her and has never come to visit her—his excuse, “I can’t,” is never explained.
Anna’s vicarious renewal of her love affair through Péter is cut short when she attends a garden party at the Hungarian embassy and sees the people Péter consorts with. She leaves, disillusioned, and Kati, who has been flown to Brussels to help Péter’s morale in his flagging campaign, learns that he has become a spy. She defects to Paris, and Klári tells Péter that if he divorces her, it won’t reflect badly on him with the government. When we return to the movie’s present, Péter seems as foolishly impotent as Laci was during a final phone call with Anna. The fecklessness of men in matters global and personal is the final impression this film leaves, an idea emphasized strongly by the appearance of Golda Meir (Beata Fudalej) at Anna’s doorstep, a strong female leader paying her respects to another of her kind in a scene of ribald camaraderie.
Lest anyone think this film’s tone is caustic or deeply political, I hasten to point out that the overall quality is romantic and dreamy. Memory is a strong force, one that must reflect the long lifespan and experiences of its director, who was in her 20s when Kéthly rose to prominence in post-World War II Europe. Anna’s homesickness and wish to return home after she learns of Laci’s death make this politically motivated narrative highly personal. Eszenyi is a beauty who is rather too young to be playing Anna, but she is a charismatic presence; for his part, Fekete is handsome, a perfect face upon whom Anna can project her sexual and romantic longings. I was attracted to this film based on its political story, but I became entranced with its atmosphere. The Last Report on Anna is a very fine women’s film that would be great viewing for lovers.
The Last Report on Anna shows Wednesday, October 13, 6:15 p.m., Thursday, October 15, 5:45 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, 12:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
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Director/Screenwriter: György Pálfi
Director: Astrid Bussink
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The past few days, “cinematic” has been a notion that has been much with me. On Saturday, I saw Silent Light, a film whose plot was overwhelmed by obsessively formal shot compositions and beautiful images of sunrises, stars, and other glories of nature. Over at Coosa Creek Cinema, Rick Olson wrote Cinematic, Whatever That Means to examine his own reaction to Wong Kar-wai’s so-called “pure cinema” and other films like Wong’s. And I was reminded of what might be the epitome of a cinematic film and my idea of the perfect marriage of visual and narrative—Hukkle, a dialogue-free telling of the true story chronicled in Astrid Bussink’s The Angelmakers.
The opening shot of Hukkle, one of many that take us extremely close to unseen worlds in nature, shows the scales of a snake moving sinuously through the grass. What kind of snake is hard to tell at first, as the camera catches only partial glimpses of its sides, the bends in its body. Eventually, however, we hear, then see, its rattle. The camera pulls back, and a diamondback rattlesnake is revealed in all its frightening glory. This opening sequence is as eloquent as a Shakespearean prologue, though we won’t know it until director Pálfi slowly inserts all of the pieces of the film’s central puzzle.
An old man, his face furrowed like a field ready for planting, shuffles through his home, preparing to go out. He has the hiccups. He finds his way to a bench on the main road of his rural Hungarian village and sits down. His hiccups, like the steady tick of a clock, lift one loose leg of the bench slightly to squeak in response. He will remain on this bench the rest of the film, seeing only what passes in front of him on the road, making the incessant, unintelligent noise of a hiccup (“hukkle”) the entire day.
The village has the bucolic charm one might find in a Merchant/Ivory film—lovely stands of trees and ponds photographed like postcards, verdant fields made into pleasing shapes through aerial photography, quaint cottages from out of a fairytale. On closer inspection, of course, the village is teeming with the mindless cruelties of nature. Close-ups of bubbles give way to a small frog swimming innocently in a pond, then being swallowed by a huge catfish, which then becomes the prey at the end of a fishing rod, lunch for an entire family, and well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Human intercourse is the main concern of this film. A young man delivering milk in a horsedrawn cart falls asleep. Soon enough, he awakens and alights at one stop to funnel water into a can on his cart. He steals away and hides behind a tree to leer at a young lady in the field who is listening to music on her Walkman. The water overflows and tips the can over. We watch his team take off and walk along the wooded path without him with the certain knowledge of beasts that know the route by rote.
Men bowl on an outdoor lane, shouting happily at their play. From a man’s face, the camera cuts to a close-up of the swollen bollocks of a pig being driven along the road by his owner. They pass by the hiccupping man. Soon, the pig is doing his studly duties, as the man and a large woman look on approvingly. The camera, however, finds something a bit more interesting to focus on. It moves between the man and woman and concentrates on the movements of an old woman in the house next door. Like the opening shot of the snake, it’s not easy to make out what she’s doing. Eventually, however, we can see her pouring something into bottles and storing them on shelves.
Next we see a tight shot of a needle making a large hole in fabric. Then, three screws are seen spinning in a gray disk. A hand reaches up to hold, then push, the disk. The camera opens out into a textile factory where women are sewing garments. One woman gets up and receives a cloth-wrapped bottle from another woman.
Soon, village life goes more somber as a young girl joins the many small animals that die from one thing or another in this film. A policeman arrives at the fishing hut of a villager who has died. He takes photos of the scene while the woman who called him picks up and empties a water bottle. The bowlers gather with thinning numbers of players. In the end, only one is left. A wedding takes place, and the women sing a Hungarian folk song. The old man continues to hiccup on his bench, his guttural sounds mixing with a cacophony of animal and insect sounds that eventually drown him out.
Pálfi reveals a dark and merciless tale by paying attention to the details that escape everyday notice or that add up to nothing meaningful in and of themselves. Like the hiccupping man, viewers can only see what is placed in front of them, a notion Pálfi makes fun of by inserting a scene of the film itself jumping out of its sprockets and then pulling back to show a villager moving into a tavern through a curtain made of strips of film. Pálfi emphasizes that we are not the only ones who are blind to the realities of life around us and in a political sense, of life in other countries, which he dramatizes in an absurd computer-generated scene of an American fighter jet roaring close to the ground and passing under a bridge in the village, then soaring up to the heavens. Did that fly-by tell its pilot anything about life on the ground? Does even Pálfi’s magnetic microcinematography? It’s clear that being too close up is as bad as being too far away.
The director of The Angelmakers interviews the villagers of Nagyrev, where Hukkle was shot and where the specific story upon which it was based took place. I say “specific” because this particular part of Hungary contains a number of villages where murder most foul was committed—140 in all, primarily men. Dutch director Bussink also seems to have taken some inspiration for her shots from Pálfi, including livestock and housing, and suggesting something rotten at the core by documenting a dying rural town (though certainly, rural towns die without the help of a history of arsenic poisoning).
She films a women’s folk-dance club, mirroring the wedding shot at the end of Hukkle showing women dancing and singing, and interviews the members about their participation in the club. One woman complains that her husband wouldn’t let her join the club, but she talked him around to the point where he now admonishes her not to be late. Would his continued refusal have been grounds for execution in days gone by? These days, the women universally agree that divorce is the only way to go.
A woman whose great-grandmother was one of the killers who died in prison has assigned herself the job of unofficial historian of the crimes. She talks about how the town’s midwife leeched arsenic out of flypaper and provided bottles of it to women who wanted to lighten their burdens. She talks about her grandmother’s sadness that both her parents were taken away, though the woman didn’t realize until she was an adult that it was through murder and prison that these losses occurred.
Two women who were alive at the time of the murders said they occurred for a variety of reasons—some women lived with abusive men, divorce was illegal, some felt burdened by husbands made sick and invalid from fighting in World War I. Some also killed women who were in the way due to age and infirmity. It was common knowledge that these murders were taking place, but only the officials in Nagyrev actually arrested anyone. There is resentment that Nagyrev is singled out for infamy when the murders were widespread.
The Angelmakers is a short film, but its grasp of the intricacies of a rural town bleaching in an unwanted spotlight is impressive. The interviews are well chosen and tightly edited to bring out the essence of each interviewee’s story, from a divorced woman who perseveres in her “oddball” yoga practice to calm her anger to a seriously depressed man who is the source of all information on the death of the town in a modern age. We see underneath the surface, just as Hukkle literally scratched below the dirt to see how life is corrupted and killed in almost unthinking ways.
Rosika, a 93-year-old woman who lives in the midwife’s former home, says the woman saw the police coming to her door and was prepared. Rosika points to a spot high on her pantry wall as the place where the noose the midwife used to hang herself dangled. “Does it bother you?” asks Bussink. “It used to,” she says. “But now I’m used to it.”
It’s time, I think, to reveal the words of the wedding song in Hukkle:
If your husband has you seething
Belladonna you must feed him
Add some pepper, make it pleasing
He’ll be laid out by the evening
If you love your husband dearly
Good meals will keep him cheery
I’ll away to that far valley
I’ll away to that far valley
Where even birds go very rarely
Where even birds go very rarely
As the stork I too am lonely
As the stork I too am lonely
I have no one to console me
I have no one to console me
Days of sadness, life of sorrow
Days of sadness, life of sorrow
Star of sadness scars the morrow
Star of sadness scars the morrow
The Angelmakers ends with a ferryman returning to Nagyrev’s infamous shores, unworried despite it all. l