Dir. Gyorgy Szomjas. Hungary. 2002. 97mins.

Exploring the growing worldwide phenomenon of dance houses - places where people can gather and celebrate their traditional music - the latest effort by Hungarian director Gyorgy Szomjas lavishes most of its attention on what would normally be considered background material, using a schematic plot to sustain audience interest. Naturally, Szomjas deals with Hungarian dance houses, which first began in small Transylvanian villages and have since spread throughout Central Europe. In different hands, this material might have turned into a Riverdance rip-off, but Szomjas prefers to preserve the simple, spontaneous and popular nature of these dance houses, focusing on the social effect they have on their attendees. A natural for festivals and for ethnic programming, it is likely to have a weaker reception from regular audiences, who will demand a more substantial story. The film also played in the Panorama sidebar at Berlin.

For Szomjas, who in the past has come up with a number of particularly critical observations on Hungarian life (including Light Physical Injuries, The Wall Driller and Junk Movie), Vagabond also registers as an almost encouraging expression of optimism.

The vagabond in question is 18-year-old Karesz (Simon), kicked out of his parents' home for unruliness and now living on the street. There he sleeps in parks, gangs up with other kids, washes windscreens at traffic lights, does drugs and drink and indulges in the occasional burglary.

One day he stumbles into a dance house and is gradually entranced by the warm atmosphere and community feeling there. Soon he becomes a regular and is fascinated by the variety of percussion instruments - from empty jugs to bongos drums - featured in the celebrations. Eventually, Karesz becomes conflicted: his former street friends want to drag him back to a life of vice and crime, while he himself wants to start afresh in his newfound culture.

There is no point in trying to probe too deeply into characters or narrative here: Szomjas is evidently less interested in them here than the atmosphere and significance of the folk music and dancing that act as social levellers, with film almost as a documentary study of this social phenomenon. In his Szomjas' eyes, this is a brotherhood that encompasses all races, genders and social classes, accepting anyone so long as they take part. Participants sing, dance and drink too much, but all in such a way that even life's worst ordeals become bearable.

Cinematographer Ferenc Grunwalsky's fluidly expert digital camera roves through the long - arguably too long - and numerous dance sequences, imparting to the proceedings a remarkably authentic feeling (many of the performers are professionals, not actors). The music, a rich mix of Gypsy, Jewish, Hungarian and Moldavian folk tunes is also performed by some of the most renowned artists in the country, including the likes of Marta Sebestyen, who performed on The English Patient soundtrack.

Prod co: RF Produckio
Hung dist:
Budapest Film
Int'l sales:
Katalin Rosta
Gyorgy Szomjas
Ferenc Grunwalsky
Anna Kornis
Main cast:
Peter Simon, Kata Horváti, Gráci Benke, Róbert Kerény, Enikö Kocsis, Csaba Simon, Judit Abraham