On the heels of his international success with “Being Julia,” and the actress Oscar nom it garnered for Annette Bening, old-guard Hungarian helmer Istvan Szabo returns to his Magyar-lingo roots after 14 years with the confidently crafted, mischievously played political drama “Relatives.” Pic is a thinly disguised cautionary fable of an idealistic lawyer who resists, and then is consumed by, the trappings of power following a political appointment. Satisfyingly old-fashioned return to form plays a tad long but requires little thematic translation for upscale auds. It should be a solid specialty earner in arthouses and ancillary.
In what is apparently the 1930s, in a well-to-do Hungarian city a short train ride from Budapest, the town fathers have arranged for squeaky-clean Istvan Kopjass (Sandor Csanyi) to take over as attorney general from his corrupt predecessor. “I think he’s a relative of mine,” someone says. “Mine too” is the happy, prophetic reply.
Kopjass is eager to get on with the job, telling his frugal but loving wife, Lina (Ildiko Toth), he can do good in the position. Instead, he quickly learns how deeply into the corridors of power corruption has seeped. Piggish mayor (Oleg Tabakov), who insists on being called “Uncle Bela,” cautions against Kopjass’ proposed new tax structure favoring the poorby reminding him, “We have to have our cake and eat it, too.”
What’s worse, just about everyone Kopjass runs into now claims to be a distant relative and has some kind of shady scheme percolating. Against his instincts, Kopjass is tempted by the promise of a suspiciously cheap villa from an excitable banker (Karoly Eperjes) and the better life it portends for Lina and his young twin sons. Enchanted by the banker’s wife (Erika Marozsan), and tortured by dreams involving a night train he only just manages to catch, Kopjass becomes enmeshed in a complicated swindle that proves his undoing.
If pic were this straightforward, its message would still resonate. Yet Lina’s obliviousness to her husband’s moral struggle and resulting anger injects the story with an added layer of tragedy, neatly balanced by the comic rapaciousness of the government officials that made the original novel by Zsigmond Moricz so popular.
As with his best films, including Oscar winner “Mephisto” (1981) and Oscar-nommed “Colonel Redl” (1985), Szabo is energized by the chance to remind his auds that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
New to the mix this time around is an absurdist strain of comedy, clear in Moricz’s novel and sure-handedly teased here by Szabo without overdoing it.
Delicate balancing act is achieved in large part by an ace cast, repping a virtual who’s who of local talent. Csanyi, the put-upon lead in Nimrod Antal’s “Kontroll” (and now a Hugh Grant-like heartthrob in Hungary), strikes the perfect balance of outrage and acquiescence as Kopjass. Pop-eyed Eperjes, in his fourth film for Szabo, gets the biggest laughs for his corporate caricature.
Tech package is tops, led by the sumptuous art direction of Zsolt Kell, the dapper period threads of costume designer Gyorgyi Szakacs and rich lensing by longtime collaborator Lajos Koltai. In a nice touch, Oscar-winning Czech helmer Jiri Menzel, who appears briefly as a corrupt banker, was dubbed into Hungarian by Szabo himself.