The Whisky Robber, directed by Los Angeles-born filmmaker of Hungarian descent, Nimród Antal, won the Audience Award at 2018 Hungarian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
The movie is an adaptation of the real-life story of Attila Ambrus, a “gentleman criminal” often compared in Hungary to Sándor Rózsa, the country’s version of Robin Hood. Antal starts the film with a stylishly staged robbery that the moustachioed, Ray Ban- and leather jacket-clad hero pulls off in a bank. Then we go back to his childhood, and we soon realise that Attila (first-timer Bence Szalay), or the titular Whiskey Bandit, has been arrested and is now telling his life story to the detective (Zoltán Schneider, also seen this year in On Body and Soul [+]) who has been hunting him for decades.
Attila grew up in Transylvania in the 1980s and escaped to Hungary illegally by riding underneath a freight train. We see how he becomes a goalie for a hockey team in Budapest and finds a girlfriend, Kata (Piroska Móga, from Strangled [+]), whose bourgeois father dismisses him as hopeless, without a job nor much chance of getting one. Trying to get a work permit, he goes to a corrupt government official in order to get him to pull some strings, but this does not work without “greasing the wheels”, as Antal’s screenplay puts it. So he turns to robbing banks, not once hurting anybody, and soon gains a reputation as a folk hero. The nickname comes from the smell of whiskey he leaves behind, as he always drinks before a heist – first simply to calm his nerves, but later, more to uphold his reputation.
This is an accomplished crime/action movie, fast-paced and fluid, elegantly shot and often funny, with a charismatic hero, rich period detail, and a lightly satirical view of the post-communist transition in Hungary. While this will work for local viewers in whose consciousness the story is very much alive and kicking, it raises the question of how well it will translate to international audiences. We do not understand why he is compared to Robin Hood when he uses the stolen money only for himself – be it to travel, buy his girlfriend expensive clothes, eat in fancy restaurants, gamble or what have you.
While one can grasp the idea that for Hungarians in the turbulent 1990s, the simple fact that someone was regularly outsmarting the state and mocking all it represented would give some rebellious satisfaction to common folk, this realisation is undermined by some contradictory narrative decisions, such as a scene in which a group of passers-by, who notice a heist, go after Attila and his partner as they start running away with the money.