Hungary heart

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday March 26, 2019
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Juli Jakab stars in director Laszlo Nemes' "Sunset." Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Juli Jakab stars in director Laszlo Nemes' "Sunset." Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Hungarian filmmaker L�szl� Nemes, responsible for the harrowing 2015 Holocaust docudrama "Son of Saul," returns with a slowly paced pre-WWI drama commencing at a crucial moment in the history of his country. It's 1913, and the country we now know as Hungary is still a junior partner in one of Europe's collapsing empires, the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian pact. Beneath the surface charm, a modern sensibility is struggling to be born.

This sensibility will be the catalyst for a horrific war, then for new ways of appreciating human nature (Sigmund Freud), bold breakthroughs in literature (the novels of Thomas Mann), totalitarian ideologies (Fascism vs. Communism), deadly new weapons (the atom-splitting Manhattan Project), but also unbelievable innovations in filmmaking: sound, color, widescreen technologies, with genius directors.

Sadly, with all the potential for carving out an allegory that would explain the Hungarian nation's bumpy journey through the 20th century, the filmmakers have created what amounts to a dramatic still life, a plodding drama that is at times unintentionally funny, in the process wasting a provocative performance by the film's female lead, Juli Jakab. A film newcomer, Jakab appears as �risz Leiter, apparently the sole-surviving member of a hat-making family whose retail outlet was consumed by fire years before the action covered by this film.

Jakab spends much of the film's running time fixing her gaze upon all she encounters, from high-ranking members of the merchant class to cute boy laborers. At one point the young woman learns that she may have a brother, but this plot thread only serves to extend the running time of a film that would have been far more captivating had it come in at under 90 minutes.

"Sunset" debuted at the Venice Film Festival and screened at the Toronto International. It was Hungary's entry for Best Foreign Film (but not selected for the Oscar short-list), from a part of the world that has historically furnished Western cinema with hours of mystery and intrigue. My advice is to skip it and instead revisit Carol Reed's "The Third Man," that brilliant thriller about the immediate post-WWII depravity of Vienna. "The Third Man," with its captivating climax in the Viennese sewers, conveys a good deal more about this region of the world that still commands more than its fair share of headlines. In Hungarian with English subtitles. Opens Friday.