Dir. Karoly Makk. Hungary. 2003. 90mins.
While it is by no means a sequel to his celebrated feature Love of 32 years ago, Karoly Makk's new film not only employs the same two leading actors, Mari Torocsik and Ivan Dardas, but also makes extensive use of footage from his earlier picture to provide credible background. All this to suggest that the time has come for Hungarians to put the Communist past to rest, bury the hatchet and accept that life has to go on. Saying it as pleasantly and at the same time as conventionally as Makk does may be disturbing for some audiences at home for whom those memories are still very much alive, particularly those who tend to associate veteran Makk with the previous regime. In the West, the message may look a bit cryptic and arbitrary to eyes that are not sufficiently familiar with the recent history Central European countries. But in former Socialist countries it may well strike a chord.
Former Hungarian scientist (Darvas), sent to prison as a suspected dissident at home, escaped to the West during the 1956 uprising, reached London, married a British woman (Atkins), climbed the academic hierarchy and finally retired with his wife to Lugano, Switzerland. There, he one day gets a strange phone call telling him that his first love, back in Hungary, is now terminally ill and has only a few days left to live. Surprising even himself, he drops everything and returns for the first time to the country he once loved and then loathed, after having systematically avoided it for more than 40 years.
The experience turns out be more of a shock than he ever expected. First, the sights which look similar and are yet different. Then there is the woman (Torocsik), who adored him and even followed him for a brief while to London, but who now on her deathbed confesses she betrayed him to the secret police. The ultimate surprise is discovering he has a daughter (Nagy-Kalozy), now a grown-up, smart young woman who had always thought he was dead and is not quite ready to accept him for what he is. It all means that his orderly routines, established in the West, are shattered one after the other as he confronts an identity crisis he believed resolved long ago.
It also emerges that his former torturer, a top brass in the secret police who has kept his position despite the regime change, is far more human than he believed. It is an impression aided by a sympathetic performance from Dezso Garas, one of the best Hungarian character actors around, who turns what should have been the real villain of the piece into someone almost is sympathetic despite the awful things he did in the past (and apparently still does). He may not be likeable but he is not a monster either.
Makk, one of the leading film-makers from the great Hungarian generation of the 1960s and 1970s, whose recent Western-financed forays did not fare too well critically or commercially, is more comfortable talking about things closer to his heart. With the help of Elemer Ragalyi's camera he shows Budapest under the best possible angles and displays much sympathy for those who misguidedly believed at the time in the communist gospel to the detriment of their personal lives.
He is well served by Torocsik and Darvas, two of Hungary's top actors, and benefits from the luminous presence of Eszter Nagy-Kalozy as the daughter who refuses to accept that human relations can depend to such an extent on political faith. But by leaving out potentially unpleasant past episodes that would have made his humanist message less palatable and insufficently exploring the characters and their backgrounds, Makk may well disappoint those who are still waiting for him to deliver another Love.
Prod co/int'l sales: New Dialog Studio
Prods: Andras Bohm, Mark Vlessing
Scr: Makk, Vlessing
Cinematography: Elemer Ragalyi
Ed: Maria Rigo
Music: Laszlo Des
Main cast: Mari Torocsik, Ivan Darvas, Eszter Nagy-Kalozy, Eileen Atkins, Dezso Garas, Attile Kaszas