The reliability of an inscrutable Hungarian National Security officer is put to the test in post-1956 Budapest in “The Exam,” a nifty little pretention-free genre item from helmer Peter Bergendy. Penned by Norbert Kobli, the pic’s communist-cat-and-counterrevolutionary-mouse game is never excessively political, instead playing up the noir and mystery elements that ensure the film’s main loyalty lies with entertaining its mainstream audience. Impressively shot on a small budget for Magyar TV, this was deservedly released in theaters first, and could go a similar route in other ex-Soviet territories. “Exam” should also pass the test for TV buyers worldwide.
The failed 1956 revolution led to a noted increase in Soviet surveillance in Hungary and a law that stated that each National Security officer had to be unwittingly tested to see if they were truly devoted to the communist cause, leading to the schizophrenically paranoid situation where each spy was not only spying but also spied upon.
Andras Jung (Zsolt Nagy) is a handsome 30-year-old National Security agent who poses as a German teacher who lives in a nondescript Budapest apartment where he receives adult “students,” even on Christmas Eve. His direct superior, 50-year-old Marko (Janos Kulka), gets the order to test Andras, who keeps a precious list of the other agents he meets and collects information from.
Marko and Jung are not only colleagues but also have something of a father-son rapport, so it comes as a shock to Marko that when he’s spying on and listening in on the goings-on in Jung’s apartment as part of the titular exam, a beautiful woman of unknown allegiance, Eva (Gabriella Hamori), shows up and starts to make out with the young agent — and the list suddenly goes missing.
It’s an enjoyable ride that helmer Bergendy and screenwriter Kobli take auds on, with possible loyalty reversals and unsuspected motives surfacing as the action goes back and forth between Jung’s dwelling and the hideout of those spying on him from the building across the street. Despite its historical background, the pic is not a character piece a la “The Lives of Others,” with a continued emphasis on advancing the story instead of exploring the emotional turmoil of the people that populate it. In this context, the thesps all suggest their variations on stock characters, with an appealing intensity.
D.p. Zsolt Toth, shooting with light digital cameras, uses the handheld aesthetic to inject a visual sense of unease and instability, while Gergely Parudy’s jangly score achieves a similar goal on a music level. Production design receives an extra boost from the fact the period film is set around Christmas, though it’s clear, especially in the outdoor scenes (with rarely more than one car per shot), that pic’s budget was limited.