Like an Eastern European Candide, a downsized Slovak power-plant engineer leaves for Latvia, pursuing a dream of a better job and good fishing in the absurdist picaresque “Out,” from feature debutant György Kristóf, who like his protagonist is an ethnic Hungarian Slovak. Although a tad lacking in dramatic oomph, the smartly stylized episodic tale is crammed full of oddball characters and boasts a deeply sympathetic turn from Hungarian actor Sándor Terhes as the protagonist, who sets out on his odyssey with barely more than schoolboy Russian and a vintage fishing pole. Fests most definitely should bite; sales agent Cercamon is closing on several Asian territories and following up on interest from European distributors.
Embracing the opportunity to go out into the world, naïve, fiftysomething Ágoston (Terhes, who has a minor role in competition title “Jupiter’s Moon”) leaves his stoic wife (Éva Bandor) and university student daughter (Judit Bárdos) for what looks like a promising opportunity at a shipyard on the Baltic coast. Unfortunately, the promised position turns out to be just the first of many scams and disappointments he will encounter. Meanwhile, he’s barely missed back at home; his wife even takes advantage of his absence to replace his favorite armchair with an enormous plant.
After making a forced “donation” to an animal charity, Ágoston lands some shipyard work as a welder, but his xenophobic colleagues look askance at foreigners coming to take their jobs. The locals, apart from a friendly, cactus-loving hotel clerk, are barely more welcoming. A chance encounter with Gaida (Guna Zarina) a rabbit-raising eccentric, ultimately leaves him in possession of Lev, a taxidermied rabbit without ears. Later, things go from bad to worse when the presence of poor Lev offends an overbearing Russian (Viktor Nemets) and his wife (Ieva Aleksandrova-Eklone), a grotesque vision of plastic surgery run amok, and results in Ágoston being beaten and abandoned in a Baltic forest.
Helmer-co-scripter Kristóf leavens Ágoston’s travails with numerous brief, droll set pieces. Among the most amusing are a naked beer round at a Latvian bar; vodka as the not-quite lingua-franca between our hero and a depressed guy who looks like Santa Claus; and a know-it-all twin-brother fishing-pole salesmen. The prim feline-patterned shirt that’s sported by the shipyard’s “eco-bitch” secretary (played by the helmer’s wife, Ieva Norvele Kristóf) is pretty adorable too.
Helmer/co-writer Kristóf, who earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from famed Czech film school FAMU, endows his protagonist with a winning wistfulness reminiscent of the Czech New Wave. Lanky, gap-toothed Terhes, a notable stage actor who has scored in numerous small parts for helmer Kornél Mundruczó and other new-generation Magyar directors, definitely understands the character and delivers oodles of warmth and low-key charisma in one of his first leading screen roles since Roland Vranik’s “Transmission.” Terhes makes palpable Ágoston’s optimism, loneliness and frustration — and he gets viewers to care about the character’s fate.
The visuals are among the film’s strongest suit. Working with ace Hungarian DP Gergely Pohárnok (the go-to cameraman for György Pálfi, so no stranger to taxidermied animals), Kristóf uses tight framing and enclosed spaces to oppress Ágoston in contrast with his freedom and ease in natural settings. Kudos are also due for the numerous surprising and eye-catching locations.