It is to the credit of Bunyik Entertainment, presenter of the 8th Hungarian Film Festival Los Angeles, that local audiences — state-side Hungarians, industry professionals, cultural aficionados, and the simply curious — have had a chance to see films that far surpass the crowd-pleasing popcorn movies too many international programmers presume to be in demand in “sunny” southern California.
With a stroke of pronounced fine taste, Mr. Bunyik launched the fest with Eszter’s Inheritance, an eye-opener adapting one of Hungary’s most esteemed literary figures to the screen; he followed it with Delta, last year’s FIPRESCI (International Critics) award-winner from Cannes; and then he introduced Iska’s Journey, Hungary’s contender for the 2008 Academy Awards. Fresh as a breeze from the Balaton, these three gems (among twelve more recent fiction features and seven documentaries at the fest) paved the way for two other segments: “Hungarians in Hollywood,” with Michael Curtis’ Casablanca heading off a historical showcase of works by celebrated cinematographers (Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács), screenwriters (Joe Eszterhas), composers (Miklós Rozsa), producers (Andres G. Vajna), and directors (Károly Makk); and “Spotlight on Miklós Janscó,” screening four classics beginning with The Round-Up by the auteur who flagged Hungary on the map of world cinema in the 1960s. The latter were shown in handsome new 35mm prints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an extremely rare opportunity not to be missed.
What better way to wake up to the heavyweight line-up of new films in the fest than with the “cold shower” of Miklós Janscó’s austere, potent, magnificently choreographed exercises of power on the plains of Hungary’s history (each alluding to the unease of its contemporaneous times)? Janscó’s breathlessly wide angles, long shots, long takes, and allegorical abstractions may trouble audiences with his trance-like scenes of “shock and awe” in the midst of mysterious and seemingly arbitrary military maneuvers, but that trouble is worth it in the same way that Tarkovsky or Angelopoulos or Hungary’s own Béla Tarr menace the mind with unforgettable images and recurrent rituals at once momentary and mythic.
For all the intellectual and social prowess of Hungary’s past and present cinema, some romantic tendencies — romantic in the sense of the far-away place, the personal vision, the individual dream — enter the aesthetic with characters who are outcasts yet are brave enough to love, to risk, to commit. Kornél Mundruczó’s Delta, recalling the power dynamics in the films of Tarr and Janscó and the expanses of time and space explored by their international cohort, draws our empathy to a brother (Lajkó Félix) and sister (Orsi Tóth) who, shunning the narrow, provincial, and even backward ways of their family and community in a remote village of Romania’s Danube delta, strive to build a new life. Their reach and their embrace of each other, as organic as it is taboo, strikes the chords of classical tragedy as the two flaunt their joy (most counter-intuitively, at times). Symbolic images — a displaced tortoise, pálinka-soaked loaves of bread, a “life-vest” floating alone down the Danube — accentuate a delectable cinematography of the Delta’s portentous waterways all the while the lens refuses to intrude upon the sexual encounters in the film, be they violent or loving. An enigmatic score composed by violin virtuoso and first-time actor Lajkó Félix electrifies the pensive atmosphere like lightning.
If Delta’s main theme is the stifling of the life force by overt repression, an internalized blockage of enterprise, imagination, and generosity in body and spirit is the subject of Eszter’s Inheritance, produced and directed by József Sipos as his debut feature and written by him in conjunction with the film’s cinematographer, Francisco Gózon (who also photographed Iska’s Journey). A meticulous and inspired adaptation of Sándor Márai’s 1939 novella, Esther’s Inheritance, to be released in English for the first time this November by Alfred A. Knopf, offers everything that the finest literature can lend the screen. It also delivers an ensemble of some of Hungary’s most impressive thespians, including Eszter Nagy-Kálózy and György Cserhalmi playing the leads along with Mari TörÅ‘csik (from Janscó’s Silence and Cry and numerous Hungarian masterpieces) bearing her legendary sagacity.
The author of more than sixty books beginning in the 1920s, nearly half of them novels, Sándor Márai was a leading light of Hungarian literature between World Wars I and II (he died at age 89 in San Diego, California at his own hand). With Chekhov’s sense of personal discipline and devotion to work as well as his taste for lyricism and theatre, with Thomas Mann’s talent for diagnosing the middle class and the psychosocial woes of Middle Europe, and with Robert Musil’s spare modernist prose dancing on the head of a pin, Márai speaks to his readers in a soft and sober voice that is quite his own. Bold in the face of Fascism, he felt Hungary needed to be purposeful in building a liberal democracy, but he saw this initiative dissipated in the middle class along with its other aspirations. Márai identified himself as bourgeois with all its incumbent responsibilities of the class, foremost among them the duty to be curious, creative, inventive, and tolerant. This “duty” lurks behind the scenes in Eszter’s home like the late-night wind, warm and gusty, that musses everything in her house, her heart.
In the film Márai’s intimate words are shared with us in Eszter’s voice-over, a deft touch that rewards with its restraint. Sipos’ staging and Gózon’s camera give visual form to the very process of self-revelation, peeling back the layers and mining the textures and tones of a longstanding internal dialogue. To hear it and to see it is to encounter the actual feeling of “awareness.” Put another way, Eszter’s Inheritance has much to do with the deceits and fantasies of Lajos, a pathological liar in the eyes of all but his grown daughter, who in any event is in tune with his endless capacity to dream. Lajos’ lies have been visible enough. But the core of the story resides not in the hollow excesses of this would-be rainmaker. It finds its way to Eszter — “what lies within” — self-deceptions that, Lajos knows full well, her integrity will not allow her to escape. And how he turns these on her!
The screen is filled with the keepsakes of Eszter’s past, both large and small: a portrait of Vilma, Eszter’s sister and Lajos’ deceased wife; a precious family ring, whether still authentic or secretly copied; a rosewood box of letters post-marked and supposedly delivered but never opened; and the charming old estate itself, maintained well enough, perched high above the Balaton with a view of the lake looking endless as a sea beneath the cascading vineyards and gardens. These all figure in Eszter’s “inheritance” — material and also spiritual — and what she is compelled to do with it. This film is as subtle as Delta is bold, as dramatically nuanced as Delta is categorically tragic, but both play the hand of destiny, a destiny in which the players are complicit, if only in their punishing naiveté.
Iska’s Journey is another tale of naiveté leading straight to tragedy, this time for a girl in her early teens. Mária Varga, the film’s rising star, fills nearly every frame with her innocent face as we are taken to Romania once again, but to another region entirely, a depressed mining zone in the Carpathian Mountains near the Zsil River where Iska searches for scrap metal to trade it for cash for her mother’s drinking habit. Hardy and gutsy Mária and her frail younger sister Rozália are playing their real-life roles as Iska and Rózsika, respectively, in this “film diary” by proxy — that is, they enact their own story as transcribed by director Csaba Bollók.
When the two sisters end up in a children’s shelter, they are grateful, but Iska still prefers to live with her temperamental and abusive mother, so she leaves Rózsika behind, where she can be treated for her illness. Once at home, Iska takes up with a boy she met at the shelter and they have a carefree day, moving about on a whim. They even plan a trip to the sea, but before Iska can meet her friend on the train, she’s seduced by strangers and ends up on a big boat, at sea at last, a sea of forced prostitution.
One indication of the dreaminess of this drama with a documentary feel to it is a scene midway into the film in which the camera glides into a seeming schoolyard of children that looks more like a school of fish, each swimming on its adjacent bench, following the instructions of a master for each stroke. This strange calisthenics exudes the mystery of all children’s play, and it remains as unexplained as Iska’s plans and tactics for survival. Her sparkling eyes betray the opacity of her inner thoughts.
Francisco Gózon shot the entirety of Iska’s Journey with a hand-held 35 mm camera, and with all the vérité in the look of the film, we never see Iska sexually abused. It’s a story about human trafficking that shows us the life of this freckle-faced street child, a quiet, Dardennes-like portrait-in-motion that rivals so many “white slave” tales with its quiet respect for Iska and all that she harbors inside, never violently penetrating that interior but honoring its imaginary space.