Dir: Gyorgy Szomjas. Hungary , 2008. 89mins
Far superior to last year's Hungarian box-office champion Children of Glory, Gyorgy Szomjas' new film tells a very similar story, namely the 1956 uprising against the prevailing communist regime. But it has a different narrative accent and is less adroit at tugging the heartstrings - qualities, or flaws, depending on your perspective, that will almost certainly affect its commercial future.
A remarkable piece of filmmaking, it moves with consummate ease from docudrama to historical epic, from coming of age romance to nostalgic elegy for a youthful energy and exuberance gone by, using alternately black and white, colour, documentary footage and everything in between. Add in a highly sophisticated digital treatment of images and the seamless blending of a well-packaged whole and you find qualities that may be appreciated more by industry professionals than by general audiences.
Not as glamorous as and far less melodramatic than Children of Glory, but more polyphonic in nature, Szomjas' best bet will be with the arthouse circuit and festivals, though even there the excessive use of narrative and visual flamboyance often draws the attention away from its other achievements. Presented in flashback, by several narrators, including some characters addressing the camera, Szomjas' script mixes the drama generated by the historical events using, just like Vajna's picture, a group of sports-oriented adolescents, in this case amateur soccer enthusiasts, who set out to defend the honour of their country in the midst of a chaotic rebellion whose twists and turns will finally determine the course of their lives.
Within the tale of their improvised but heroic defence of their neighbourhood cinema, Szomjas' script (written with Gabor Heller and Akos Kertesz) weaves a triangular romantic affair, involving the assertive leader of the group, Totya (Czeczo), a pretty tram conductor Juli (Gaspar) and their close friend, Gabor, better known as Mouthy (Barnai), the intellectual of the group who hopes one day to go to America and study at Princeton, because Einstein had once taught there.
Though keeping close to the course of history, with frequent use of newsreel footage to support it, the film focuses more on the microcosm of a suburb and its inhabitants. It takes place much of the time in the cinema the youngsters have occupied (with the full consent of the owner), and dwells much on the naïve organization of a popular rebellion, where some of the greatest achievements of the newly acquired freedom is to listen to Long Tall Sally and Heartbreak Hotel.
Ironically, as they bide their time in the cinema, keeping abreast of events by listening to the radio, the kids are cheering enthusiastically the Russian resistance beating the Germans in The Battle of Stalingrad, which the projectionist happened to have in his booth, and when later, they have to face the Russian tanks, the only weapons they have are Russian made machine guns or self-devised Molotov bottles.
Irony of a different kind is thrown in for good measure, whether it is the cinema owner demanding his occupiers behave because this is a respectable palace of culture, a couple of Russian prisoners captured escaping a burning tank who refuse to be sent back to their troops, or when nimble political activists of new parties that didn't have the patience to see the Russians gone, are already competing to adopt the juvenile rebels, who will have none of it.
Told in a tone that suggests personal involvement and autobiographical experiences, Sun StreetBoys employs a rich visual palette that is quite often astounding in its mastery. Shot in 16 mm, the negative was lab-treated in depth by DoP Ferenc Grunwalsky (also a director in his own right), who may be ultimately the true star of the movie. Karoly Szalai's smoothly expert editing makes use of every artifice of the image (like flashbulbs) and sound (musical beats) to drive the story briskly forward. Szomjas is in control at all times as he film changes moods and tones.
His three young protagonists offer soulful performances, strongly supported by a cast of fresh new faces, on the one hand, but also by some of the more seasoned veterans of Hungarian cinema, like Peter Andorai, Janos Derszi, Peter Scherer and Zoltan Mucsi, in secondary parts.
Director of photography