Szabo favors fare that challenges perceptions

Karlovy Vary jury chief still believes in cinema's sense of wonder

Istvan Szabo, Hungary’s best-known filmmaker, knows a thing or two about the 75-year-old Karlovy Vary’s importance as a platform for unique and uncompromising visions.

“I think the film festivals are really valuable events,” says the director of such films as “Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl” and “Being Julia,” “because they can help in drawing the attention to special and strange films, and arouse the interest of the audience, too.”

It’s a role that has even more importance, he adds, in an era “when European film decreasingly reaches the audience and truly valuable art films get lost on the market. The Karlovy Vary film festival always found the values which were worth paying attention to, and I hope it will be the same this year, too.”

This year’s head of Karlovy Vary’s main jury also sees the fest as a prime location for spotting emerging visionaries from the region.

“It is natural that Central Europe pays attention to Karlovy Vary more than distant countries do,” he says. “A lot of young and talented directors debuted in Karlovy Vary — and if we are lucky it will be the same this year, too.”

As for the elements that Szabo seeks out in films — and those he will want to honor while serving on the jury — one key is courage in exploring human foibles, perhaps of the kind his own films such as “Mephisto,” in which a German strikes a Faustian bargain with the Nazis in the name of fame and fortune, have exhibited.

“When I go to cinema I always would like to have my interest aroused by a film for a fate, for a human group, for a world. And wait to become fond of a face which can represent my emotions on the screen.”

A good film should also challenge its audience’s ideas, he adds. “I’m glad if a film helps me defeat my preconceptions towards a character — so I’m glad when I get to know the other side of something, when my opinion changes during the screening of the film, and I become richer.”

Much of a great film may be in the close-ups, as well: “In a motion picture the emotions which are born and change on the living face are always original — no other art can replace it. I like when faces charm me.”

Szabo is also a believer in passionate debate about the merits of a film, something he looks forward to engaging in with fellow jurors.

“It is difficult to compare the good films with each other — just like the taste of the apple is different from the taste of the pear. It is a matter of taste, so we must discuss it. And it is not sure that the best film would be that one which receives the most of the votes.”

Evaluating the merits of film is a vastly different game these days than it was during Szabo’s own rise in the 1970s, he acknowledges.

“At the time of the New Wave, film was a really important art in Europe,” he says. “Television was not this important and the Internet, which totally changed the relationship between the audience and the motion picture, didn’t even exist.”

The current crisis many filmmakers are facing in the wake of the recent collapse of the main national film funding org, the Motion Picture Foundation, adds bigger hurdles on a challenging path. A new fund more focused on films that will generate larger audiences — and thus be more likely to earn back some of their funding — is still being hammered out amid a chorus of complaints from those who argue that such considerations have no role in arts funding.

“The Hungarian film profession is in transformation nowadays,” says Szabo. “It is really important for it to keep its diversity.”

As for his upcoming film, “The Door,” an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Hungarian Magda Szabo, the celebrated helmer is circumspect. The movie, which stars Helen Mirren and Martina Gedeck and turns on the ambiguous relationship between a writer and her maid, “isn’t finished yet,” says Szabo, “so I cannot talk about it.”

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