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October 30, 2006

Resistance and Rebirth

Jancso films lead the way in major Hungarian cinema retrospective at Lincoln Center

"Blessed be thy name, Revolution," says Electra toward the end of Electra, My Love (right; a k a Elektreia, 1974). Directed by maestro Miklos Jancso and a commentary of sorts on the 1956 Soviet invasion, Electra, My Love fits into two of the main themes in Resistance and Rebirth: Hungarian Cinema, 50 Years After '56, the wonderful program running through Nov. 15 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.

Miklos Jancso exploded onto the "international" scene in the mid-1960s as director of such classics as The Round-Up (1965) and The Red and the White (1967). Often working with cinematographer Janos Kende, Jancso directed incredible feats of choreography, ritual and history -- Electra, My Love features swarms of stick-carrying men, bare-breasted women, and galloping horses, all dancing with the camera in magnificent long takes across a flat (Greco-)Hungarian countryside rippling with political assassination. The sound is intoxicating: chants and flutes; drums and galloping hooves; flushes of wind; terse and perverse Euripidean declarations from the spell-binding Electra (Mari Torocsik) and the Telly Savalas-esque Aegisthos (Jozsef Madaras). The primal force is astonishing; the film can embed patterns into your brain that might never leave you. It screens today at 2:45pm, and it certainly merits ditching work to go see.

The Walter Reade offers a wonderful showcase of other Jancso-directed '60s and '70s classics, including the three above and also Silence and Cry (1967), Winter Wind (1969) and Red Psalm (1972). Jancso's reputation rests on these titles, so much so that in a recent article in Film Comment, critic J. Hoberman even seems to suggest that Jancso never directed another film after Red Psalm. IMDB, for one, disputes that claim, listing 28 directorial credits after Red Psalm. The program, too, includes not just 1974's Electra, My Love but also 1999's comedy The Lord's Lantern in Budapest , in which Jancso co-stars. A colleague reports that Lord's Lantern "is a disaster and makes absolutely no sense" -- but certainly it and other titles from a director of such vision and achievement merit re-evaluation. With due appreciation for the titles that are included, one wishes the Walter Reade could have found screen time for other lesser seen titles.

The year 1956 holds a special place in Hungarian (and, indeed, in world) history, as that year marked the Soviet invasion of Hungary, obliterating Prime Minister Imre Nagy's socialist liberalization, marking the turning point in Hungary's endless 20th century cycle of revolution and revealing the Soviets' open aggressiveness toward Central Europe. That year's memory gallops into Electra, My Love like a renegade horse. Electra laments her father Agamemnon's murder 15 years ago; if the film was shot in 1973 or 1974, that puts 15 years ago very close to Nagy's 1958 execution. Is Nagy the Agamemnon for whom Electra the Hungarian nationalist mourns? And is Aegisthos channeling Communist hardliner Janos Kadar when he gives the classic newspeak line: "We must practice being punished, for that is happiness. Here, everyone is happy"?

But then there's the film's controversial last quarter, which swirls with fantasy and symbolism through rituals of destruction in the name of renewal. What exactly is that section's ideological function? Is it a call for a constantly renewing Socialism to demolish decayed Stalinism? Or is the explicit talk of revolution actually an ideological capstone to appease Party hardliners? And what's with the red helicopter? At one point, Electra says, "Perhaps this all is madness." Perhaps, but what glorious madness Electra, My Love is, even when seen on the series' decaying print, which also seems to be in the wrong screen format (would Jancso really have shot in 1.33:1?).

The 1956 flashback includes numerous other notable movies. Take the exhilarating and wonderful Daniel Takes a Train (1984), directed by Pal Sandor (or is it Sandor Pal?): Toward the end of 1956, young Daniel flees toward Vienna, following the lovely Mariann. Through his voyage, we see a fascinating tapestry of mid-20th century (Austro-)Hungarian society, carrying few bags but much baggage. Other good bets include Father (1966), a coming-of-ager directed by Istvan Szabo, and works from worthy directors Zsolt Kezdi-Kovacs (That Day Was Ours) and Marta Meszaros. Wisely, the Walter Reade won't screen A Temetetlen Halott (2004), a disappointing portrait of Imre Nagy directed by Meszaros; instead it will show Diary for My Mother and Father (1990), in which a young woman returns from Moscow soon after the invasion.

The program's third explicit theme is "New Cinema from Hungary," featuring cherry-picked Hungarian titles produced since the millennium. Kontroll (left), directed by Californian-Hungarian Nimrod Antal and distributed in the US by ThinkFilm, returns for a repertory screening. Recent efforts from Attila Janisch (After the Day Before [2004]) and Central European nowhere man Robert-Adrian Pejo (Dallas Pashamende [2005]) certainly warrant inspection, as these directors have proven their mettle with previous projects (Long Twilight and Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman, respectively). Johanna (2005) and Fresh Air (2006) both kicked up some dust at Cannes, and both seem good gambles.

In Moscow Square (2001, directed by Ferenc Torok), dazed and confused high school seniors stumble toward graduation. It's 1989, and Socialism is collapsing, which means -- hell yeah! -- no questions about the last 44 years on the state-sanctioned history exam, and after graduation everyone will head west across the newly opened border. Subtle insights abound: The biggest bully's dad is an apparatchik; a true-believer history teacher quietly advocates the text he has been forced to write off. Meanwhile, history moves forward -- and westward: arriving in Vienna, a young man queries his more worldly, petty-thieving buddy, "Is this the West?" It is indeed, and in the requisite closing shot that brings us up to the present, we see that the West will itself soon arrive, with Pepsi, in Hungary.

White Palms (2006) chalks a detailed sketch of a sadistic gymnastics coach and his traumatized young charges in late Socialist Hungary. The kids all hate the coach, but sport cult protects him. The human relationships are raw, powerful and psychologically fascinating; these scenes' controlled, clinical sadism recalls Kubrick in subtlety and nuance. Alas, when the film travels to Canada -- where Dongo, one of the young gymnasts, becomes a coach later in life -- it loses some force. The film cuts back and forth between Hungary and Canada rather than chronologically passing through Hungary on the way to Canada, and occasionally this juxtaposition hits its mark. In Canada, Dongo slaps a young gymnast, nearly costing him his job; back in Hungary, parents might have applauded such casual abuse.

Overall, Resistance and Rebirth is a great program to take a chance on, much as Hungarian cinema more generally is always a good gamble. While more modest than the Walter Reade's epochal, stunning 1998 program, Somewhere in Europe: A History of Hungarian Cinema, the current series is a wonderful introduction to one of the world's greatest national cinemas, a crucial chance to revisit and re-evaluate past works and a rare forum for the discovery of new classics.


Disclosure: The author worked on previous video editions of Electra, My Love and Daniel Takes a Train, both distributed by Facets Video.

(Photo Credits: Magyar Filmunio)

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Comments (3)

Your description is so persuasive that I'm sorely tempted to cancel my afternoon appointment and see Electra.

Jancso is, and I think will always be, a revelation. A few years ago, I remember showing RED PSALM to a mostly younger audience who had never heard of Jansco before and who (as I was again) blown away by it. Here is a filmmaker who, in almost direct confrontation to socialist realism, found a classical, yet intensely cinematic new form to deal with the progress and fatalism of history - the incredible, breathtaking, awesome long takes, the naked girls, the chanting and singing - a kind of primal life force that was like an elegant weapon against propaganda, against the banality of the acecpted "realism" of the time.

As Ray points out, Jansco has continued to be very active. I think this work will take time to re-assess. It seems self-indulgent to us who are ignorant of so much Hungarian history and politics. Hungarians often say it is very Hungarian yet very meaningful for them. But even to those not familiar with the Hungarian political sphere, we have to admire that Jansco was among the first 80-year olds to embrace video, and to create films which played with the surfaces of reality, as reflected in the dynamic tension between video and film.

I overlooked another film directed by Jancso showing in this program. God Walks Backwards, from 1990, shows November 9 at 3pm and November 12 at 8:15pm. I haven't seen it, however, as this is a more recent title, its inclusion - like that of Lord's Lantern in Budapest - reflects the Walter Reade's attempt to evaluate Jancso's reputation beyond the 60s and 70s classics

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