A clever, time-shifting idea which just about goes the distance, “The Wondrous Voyage of Kornel Esti” is an assured feature bow by director Jozsef Pacskovszky, 34, following several notable shorts. Well-mounted, inventive pic, paralleling two train journeys taken by a famed writer in youth and middle age, should get Pacskovszky an entree to the festival circuit as well as clock up some Eurotube sales.
Based on two very short stories by Magyar scribe Dezso Kosztolanyi, a friend of Thomas Mann, the film immediately establishes its period/fantasy credentials with a tinted title sequence shot in the style of a silent comedy, with young, hopeful writer Kornel Esti (Matyas Erdelyi) chased around a railroad station by a woman dressed as death. Pic then fans out into two journeys: the boyish Kornel traveling to the Italian seaboard in 1903, and the tired and disillusioned older Kornel (Gabor Mate) taking a trip to Germany in 1933 to deliver a guest lecture.
Following a funny scene in which the lad loses his virginity to a mysterious blonde (Kathleen Gati), pic crosscuts between the two journeys, with the same characters encountered 30 years apart. There’s an attractive woman (Eva Igo), and her awkward daughter who snatches a quick kiss from the uninterested lad; and there’s a blond waitress at a railroad hotel with whom he tumbles in a hayloft. The older Kornel’s reacquaintance with these characters and others is shot through with disappointments and his own cowardice.
Though the film settles down into a regular rhythm after the opening reels, Pacskovszky keeps the mix from curdling with an array of often amusing and sometimes highly inventive techniques, including rear projection in the train compartment which almost turns Kornel’s window into a private movie theater. In one clever scene at the railroad hotel, both time frames and sets of characters are encompassed in a single tracking shot.
Production values give no hint of the tight budget under which film was shot, and which even precipitated shutting down for a while when the money ran out. Makeup and costuming for the two periods is colorful and alert, and actors are well matched across the 30-year span. Classical gobbits form a lively soundtrack , with light military marches prominent.