(Hungarian and English dialogue)
Magyar helmer Istvan Szabo’s entry in BBC Scotland’s “Director’s Place” series of hometown portraits plays more as a historical textbook than a personal confessional. Szabo the man and Budapest the city remain enigmas by the end, with none of the open-heart self-surgery that directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Susan Seidelman brought to their assignments. Symbol-laden item is more likely to please those interested in a broad-brush sketch of 20th century Hungarian history.
After an interesting opening describing how a whole vocabulary evolved in the Hungarian language from dealing with the deep-rooted bureaucracy, Szabo then changes tack and assembles the main events from 1938 to the present through docu footage shot in Heroes’ Square. Following scenes in a rowdy school featuring the two actors from his 1979 drama “Confidence” (Ildiko Bansagi, Peter Andorai), and some play with statues of Stalin and the pope being helicoptered across the city , final section is an elaborate, almost Jancso-esque pageant that recapitulates the past 80 years, from the end of the Belle Epoque to the age of the mobile phone.
Some of the imagery (such as reels of film being chopped with an ax, symbolizing censorship) is concise and striking, and the final pageant, in its spectacular setting high above the city and the Danube, is a visual feast in the hands of Szabo’s regular lenser, Janos Koltai. Other footage, especially the school scenes, is obscure; and the film’s one full-frontal comment (“Our lives were ruined by politics”) comes not from Szabo but from vet actress Hedi Temessy.
What’s present in many of Szabo’s movies but absent here is any sense of spirit of place or the flavor of daily life. At bottom, it’s a safe contribution rather than an eye-opening peek into the director’s soul.