Review: ‘The Unburied Man’

A reverential biography of murdered 1950s Hungarian prime minister Imre Nagy, "The Unburied Man" is too infused with a quiet yet passionate fury to be dismissed as hagiography but too obviously strident and selective to pass muster as a clear-eyed historical recreation.

A reverential biography of murdered 1950s Hungarian prime minister Imre Nagy, “The Unburied Man” is too infused with a quiet yet passionate fury to be dismissed as hagiography but too obviously strident and selective to pass muster as a clear-eyed historical recreation. Latest pic from vet Magyar helmer Marta Meszaros is as determinedly earnest and disappointingly workmanlike as much of her recent output, yet will travel to fests on her rep alone. Theatrical life will be limited to domestic markets, however, with tube play possible on educational channels.

The son of peasants and a popular post-World War II Hungarian government veteran who led the charge against Soviet influence by loosening restrictive policies –including pulling the country from the Warsaw Pact — Nagy was prime minister for only 10 days before he fled to the Yugoslav embassy to avoid recall on the heels of the 1956 Soviet invasion. Lured out with the false promise of safe conduct, he and two colleagues were seized by the occupiers and turned over to the new Hungarian regime.

After two years of imprisonment at a remote location, the three were tried and executed, and it wasn’t until 1989 that Nagy’s name was officially rehabilitated and he was reburied with full honors.

After a framing device involving pleas to rehabilitate Nagy’s name, pic begins in the mid-1950s with a breathless sense of urgency, mixing authentic and staged newsreel clips to fine effect. Though subtleties of the political infighting will be lost on foreign auds, idealistic policies urged by Nagy (Jan Nowicki) come through clearly. Once he’s imprisoned, though, story loses much of its momentum, dwelling on flashbacks to Nagy’s youth and contempo discussions with a prison medico (Gyorgy Cserhalmi).

Though Magyar critics recently voted Cserhalmi best supporting actor, pic isn’t above controversy. Key names have been changed, and Nagy’s co-defendants, while present at the trial, remain ciphers. Meszaros has called this story “one of the most important in 20th century Hungarian history,” and while that history largely supports this view, work’s veracity is undercut by these omissions.

Nowicki brings a stuffy gravitas to the role in keeping with pic’s overall tone, though some poor dubbing detracts from the perf. Save Cserhalmi and Lily Horvath as Nagy’s wife, few other characters are drawn with enough distinction to register.

Tech credits are pro, led by the evocative lensing of Nyika Jancso, the helmer’s son by fellow filmmaker Miklos Jancso. The jail scenes were shot in the actual prison wing where Nagy was held.

The Unburied Man

Hungary-Slovakia-Poland

Production

A Budapest Film release (in Hungary) of a CameoFilm (Hungary)/Ars Media (Slovakia)/Telewizja Polska S.A. Agencia Filmowa, Akson Studio (Poland) production. (International sales: Mokep Hungarofilm Division, Budapest.) Produced by Attila Csaky. Co-producers, Igor Hudec, Michal Kwiecinski, Andrzej Serdiukow, Maciej Karpinski. Directed by Marta Meszaros. Screenplay, Meszaros, Eva Pataki.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Nyika Jancso; editor, Eva Karmento; music, Zygmunt Konieczny; art director, Istvan Ocztos; costume designer, Katalin Jancso; sound (Dolby Digital), Istvan Sipos. Reviewed at Hungarian Film Week, Budapest, Feb. 7, 2005. Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Jan Nowicki, Marianna Moor, Jan Frycz, Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Lili Horvath, Ady Hajdu, Janos Kulka, Pal Macsai, Matej Landl. (Hungarian, Romanian dialogue.)
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