La Masseria delle Allodole

[Screenshot]The Armenian genocide is one of thise things which people never actually think about when thy remember the atrocities of the twentieth century. I’d only really encountered it incidentally, and it’s one of those things which it probably is worth knowing more about, so I took a look at this film. It is a good historical primer but at best a mediocre movie. It’s good at calling attention to the roles and relationships Armenians had to the extoeric culture, both in Turkey and abroad. But the progression of the plot and the character development was a bit flat: the film comes to life only through horror, and neither the unfortunate Armenian family central to the plot nor their Turkish tormenters feel like distinct individuals at any time. It’s not a bad film, and it is generally competent on technical points, but it fails to really make its quite tragic historical source authentically affecting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


The New World

[Screenshot]This was recommended to me as somewhat less intolerable than the average Noble Savage flick. I actually found it more intolerable, for reasons which are, I will concede, totally orthogonal to the whole Noble Savage thing.

It is painfully tedious. Plot proceeds at a snail’s pace, and a story which, although not trifling, is not entirely subtle either, is would about far too much mood-setting and scenery porn. On cinematic aspects it’s good (albeit with a disappointingly limited score), but all the camera-competence in the workld can’t make up for an unfocused directorial vision.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Book of Fathers, by Miklós Vámos

Damn. This novel is very clearly Hungarian-Jewish, but it’s developed out of at least one other cultural tradition. The most obvious antecedants structurally are, in no particular order, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and perhaps Szabó’s Sunshine (the timing would be kind of tricky for this to actually have inspired it); like the last of these, it’s a historical drama following the fates of a single family, but it has a considerable layer of the mystical and the magical that marks the two aforementioned Latin works. It’s less subtle in its exploration of family cycles than, say, The House of the Spirits; some of the patterns are explicitly spelled out and the recapitulation of the past through memory is implemented through a pretty direct mechanism (which is nicely subverted by the twelfth Csillag).

But in addition to a novel with those familiar thematic elements of mystical heritage through a single family line, this is a Hungarian story, which means it lives in an extremely well-defined timeline. Macondo sleeps in timeless torpor, and even Argentina’s history is a seesaw of internal conflict, while Hungary’s is punctuated by the intrusion of specific external influences: Turkish, Austrian, Nazi, Soviet. The tenor of individual times comes through in The Book of Fathers, but in an intriguingly subdued manner. Major events, like the 1848 revolution and even the World Wars, happen in a peculiarly offstage manner: all three of the Csillags with the misfortune to experience the 40s suffer horribly during the war, but somehow World War II itself never quite comes into focus, although the shroud of the war hangs heavy. The 1956 revolution can nearly be missed, and the 1989 reformulation of the state takes place offstage. And yet the tenors of the times are crucial for understanding the characters’ positions in society. This book was written for those familiar with these events as commonplace history, so it’s not surprising that Vámos doesn’t present a didactic summary of them, but it’s refreshing if perhaps a bit confusing to see a historical novel not take the easy way out stringing from historical event to historical event. This book is more about the moods of the times and the fortunes of individuals than about history itself, and it does a marvelous job of drawing a series of interconnected but individually distinctive stories.

Édes Emma, drága Böbe: vázlatok, aktok

[Screenshot]Not, I’m afraid, Szabó’s best. His German vacation in the 80s did him good, but his return to de-Communized Hungary looks like it took a while to hit its stride, and was rather hampered by the rough shape of the nation itself. Hungary’s own troubles manifested in the low production values of this film; it’s grainy with poor sound quality (the illegible burned-in subtitles, on the other hand, I blame on the inadequacy of the US DVD authoring). On the directorial-weakness side, I’ve noted that Szabó has a gift for focusing on a single characteristic experience of a point in history, and in this occasion chose perhaps a rather too limited perspective. The focus of this film is so narrow that, aside from the focus on a change from Russian-language to English-language teaching, the major societal changes don’t come through at all, which is a pity. There’s also a great deal of gratuitous nudity; so much so that it’s alluded to in the title, even, and it doesn’t contribute anything at all,as far as I can tell, to the main themes of thin film.

For a strong impression about Hungary immediately after liberalization, I get the impression Moszkva tér (which I have yet to actually see) is a better story.

See also: IMDB.


[Screenshot]I wouldn’t expect Verhoeven, based on what I know of his films, to turn to historical drama, but I guess I’m glad he did, because his direction showed the technical aptitude he developed in the ’90s and a somewhat meatier and more nuanced plot. It bears a striking resemblance to another film I’ve enjoyed recently, Musíme si Pomáhat, in exploring the themes of collaboration and the shades of gray in relationships between the conquerors and the conquered in Nazi territory. This story feels mostly very human, and caught up with banality-of-evil issues, stressing the whole day-job-Nazi persona, even in the upper echelons of the occupation. There’s a long-running mystery plot which seems to cheapen the whole story and detract somewhat from its focus, but that’s a minor quibble. Overall, this story is full of well-realized and very human characters, and the film’s sympathies are distributed in unusual and peculiarly sensitive ways. On production values and plot richness, I’d actually put this ahead of Musíme si Pomáhat, while it explores some of the same issues. It’s a bit busier and has enough characters to get distracting, but in other respects it’s a stronger and more engaging film.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Good Bye Lenin!

[Screenshot]Good Bye Lenin! is more about creating a sense of time, place, and character than about bringing the funny. While the underlying conceit is humorously absurd, and while there are definitely some funny moments, it’s used as a launching point for a period piece which isn’t all that intrinsically hilarious. The changes of the late 90s in central Europe somewhat fascinate me, so I was pleased by the lack of distraction in delivering a story about the social changes that came with the opening of the border. And the nature of the underlying conceit does bring those changes to the fore, from immigration to supermarket shelves to the economic rockiness which the currency unification brought. This story feels like a series of vignettes to a certain extent: there’s no progression of the central plot as such, just damage control, and yet the wider world continues to move onwards, with the formalities of the reunification serving as waypoints in an otherwise static series of deceptions. I found the pacing and presentation of theme in this one to be its most appealing point: as mentioned above, I feel it presented a good picture of the culture which developed and its change over time. Others with less of an interest in the historical aspects will probably find something else to like, though. It’s capably done, with poignant humor and a few incidental themes which most anyone can enjoy (for instance, the blossoming of Denis’s self-confidence and art through Alex’s dependence on his skills).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù

[Screenshot]I like Miklós Jancsó. His films are not always good, but they’re usually visually and stylistically arresting, with extraordinary landscape visuals and stylized action. I was willing to forgive Decameron ’69 because that was a flawed project and he was the best thing about it. I’m not sure I can defend this one, though. I get the impression there’s part of Jancsó’s usual political point buried in this one: Prince Rudolf was apparently a supporter of Hungarian rights, and fashionable Hungarian conspiracy theories hold that he was assassinated for his views. That particular conspiracy theory is a tiny part of this incredibly tedious piece of ostensible erotica. Yes, “erotica”. Jancsó’s films typically involve a fair bit of incidental nudity, but it’s usually artistic; here it comes across as merely hedonistic, with orgy on orgy broken up by tedious monologuing. The artistic eye, I’m afraid, is all but absent from this one, and there’s very little to recommend it. Er, unless you like excruciatingly long orgy scenes (no, seriously, they’re not actually all that stimulating. I’m not being a prude or a wet blanket. These scenes just are not very good, artistically speaking).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.