A wayward son’s standoffish attitude toward his ex-con father leads to a sour harvest in “Father’s Acre,” a lean, mean debut feature by Magyar writer-director Viktor Oszkar Nagy. Prowling the parched, unforgiving landscape and the protags’ faces with equal acuity, the pic combines shades of Russian writer Turgenev and Hungarian helmer Bela Tarr into a rough-hewn arthouse gem. Winner of the Gene Moskowitz Prize (voted by foreign crix) at Hungarian Film Week in February, the film should parlay high-end fest slots and critical acclaim into niche distribution, including Stateside. “Acre” bows locally March 19.
The film opens with a breathtaking tracking shot of a plowed field, where two youngsters in the distance dare each other to eat something they’ve found crawling in the earth. “Isn’t your dad released from prison today?” asks one of them. Nagy then cuts to a closeup of the other young man’s response, which consists not of words but of a simple gesture: He swallows their find.
Superb opening sets up the nature of the film — rigorously controlled and beautifully composed visuals, precision editing, sparse dialogue and rash actions — as well as the complicated relationship between the unnamed son (Tamas Ravasz) and his nameless father (Janos Derzsi).
Father has been absent for most of the son’s teenage years, and the latter, having had to fend for himself, finds it hard to accept an authority figure. A second complication is the presence of an aunt, Agi (Andrea Nagy), who is the sister of the father’s late wife. Both father and son covet the woman, which creates only more friction.
In a mesmerizing scene set amid washing lines in the garden — and fraught with tension, sexual and otherwise — Agi suggests to the son that his father is actually proud of him. But he only scoffs at the thought.
Helmer Nagy deliberately leaves all the father-son interactions open to interpretation. Is the father simply unable to show his affection, or is he out to figuratively beat his son into submission? Pic derives its tension and power from this constant ambiguity.
Nagy’s solemn treatment of the material elevates the struggle to a higher, almost epic plane that recalls both Russian and biblical literature. It’s fueled by the work they do on the acre of the title, which the father wants to transform into a vineyard.
Like Kornel Mundruczo’s “Delta,” pic also owes much to Maygar maestro Tarr. But it shows young Hungarian helmers are more than simple Tarr clones, and are now creating their own, much more condensed visions of typically Hungarian themes.
The presence of Tarr regular Derzsi, as the father, reinforces the Tarr connection. Newcomer Ravasz is expertly cast as the son, his skin drawn so tightly over his high cheekbones and buff stomach that it literally embodies the pent-up tension inside him.
Composed widescreen lensing by Tamas Dobos is aces. Heni Kiss’ costume design, which unobtrusively suggests father and son are more alike than they would admit, is typical of the pic’s robust tech credits.