Dir: Kornel Mundruczo.Hungary/ Germany 2008. 110 mins.
Five years after launching the project and 18 months after starting to shoot it, with one tragic accident in the middle which almost sunk the entire production (the death of lead actor, Lajos Bertok, to whom the film is dedicated), Kornel Mundruczo is back on his feet with his best rounded and most mature work to date.
The themes he has been associated with in the past are now integrated in a perfectly coherent world and it seems as if he has found his own individual voice and a style he is most comfortable with, facts attested by the Best Film Award and the Gene Moskovitz prize offered by the foreign press, which he collected at the Hungarian Film Week.
This doesn’t mean that his film will make everyone happy. On the contrary, there will be complaints about the length, the pace, the silences, the selections used on the musical track or the lack of an elaborate narrative, but there will also be high praise, mostly from the art cinema corner, for the musicality of his structures, the plastic felicities of his images and the poetical portrait of nature in the raw. Some might even speculate on Terence Malick influences and Days of Heaven. Festivals should queue for it, even if only for its stunning unusual look, and art houses will find it easy to integrate it in their programs.
The unwelcome return home of a prodigal son (Lajko), his incestuous relationship with his half sister (Toth), their attempt to build themselves a house in the middle of a river, far away from everybody else, to celebrate their love, and the tragic ending, inevitable in a world that does not accept the happiness of others, all these are elements explored by Mundruczo in his previous films. Also from his previous films, the same lead actress, Orsi Toth, who delivers here a tremendous performance, which overshadows even the tormented angel of mercy she interpreted in Mundruczo’s Joanna.
Lajko Felix, who replaced Bertok, is a professional musician displaying in his first film role a strong personality which carries him through the long silences he has to traverse. He also composed the film’s soundtrack, for which he was rewarded separately at Hungarian Film Week.
Working from a script he wrote with Yvette Biro, one of the veteran pillars of the Hungarian cinema at its peak, and keeping the plot and dialogue in skeletal form, only the bare bones and nothing more, Mundruczo chose to shoot the entire film in the Danube Delta, one of the last wildlife havens left in Europe. A labyrinth of water ways, small islands, wild vegetation and people who have barely any contact with world outside, the Delta is not used in this case for its specific qualities but rather as the remote place the script needed as a backdrop for this primeval tragedy, which reveals human nature at its best and worst, with no trimmings and no decorations.
Though everything in this confrontation between a couple about to reach their private paradise and the rest of the world which can’t abide their bliss, looks realistic down to the smallest detail, but what finally prevails is the metaphor, first whispered in surreptitiously introduced symbols, then gradually expanding in size and intensity, evil raising its nasty head the closer the couple seems to be to their goal, until the undercurrent of anguish running all the time in the background explodes in a paroxysm of envious hateful anger, destroying the two protagonists who dared to not only to withdraw into their own happiness but flaunt it in the face of others.
If the plot is simple and schematic in the best tradition of a timeless Greek tragedy, with a chorus of harpies ready to pounce and devour hapless heroes, the cinematic language is rich and intricate.
The slow lateral travelings over the silent waters of the delta, the lush patterns of sound natural sounds, for example the contrast between a squealing pig about to be slaughtered and the song of birds which follows it, powerful images like the mournful boat convoy on its way to a funeral (reminiscent of a similar scene in Angelopoulos’ Weeping Meadow), the beauty of nature contrasting with the ugliness of men, the hints to the resilience of other species (frogs and turtles) compared to the frailty of humans, the majestic sunrises and sun downs, and the ending, in which an orange coat floats down the river as the camera pulls farther and farther away, with Gounod’s Santa Cecilia Mass on the soundtrack, are moments that art film buffs will doubtlessly cherish.
Mundruczo’s direction is admirable because it maintains all through a precision and restraint that attest to his mastery over the medium. Unhurried and rejecting the temptation to titillate his audience, he shoots a rape scene in extreme long shot and a love scene showing the couple’s feet, with Matyas Edrdelyi’s camera providing a hymn to nature in all its mystery and glory, and indeed, the identical opening and the closing shots, underline the fact that human existence is transitory, nature is eternal.
Doesn’t sound like mid-afternoon entertainment’ It certainly isn’t.
The Coproduction Office
Director of photography