Tender and surprising, “Afterlife” is a low-key, absurdist coming-of-age tale that explores the relationship between an anxious twentysomething guy and his controlling father — not only while the older man is alive, but also after his death. Emerging as part of the second year of quality-over-quantity productions from the rebooted Hungarian National Film Fund, this distinctively shot, pleasingly stylized pic marks debuting Magyar femme helmer Virag Zomboracz as a talent to watch and should enjoy a healthy afterlife in international fest play.
The action takes place from fall to winter in a remote Hungarian village, where humorless Pastor Janos (Laszlo Galffi) runs a halfway house for addicts, provides pre-marriage counseling for clueless locals, and supervises the primary school’s Christmas pageant. Unfortunately, his range of pastoral care doesn’t extend to providing acceptance or support to his neurotic son Mozes (Marton Kristof, sympathetic).
A timid vegetarian who has just been released from a mental hospital, Mozes sorely tries the pastor’s expectations of what a real man should be. Instead of listening to his son and learning what he’s all about, Janos becomes increasingly authoritarian. Zomboracz draws chuckles from her keenly observed mise-en-scene as Janos tosses big slabs of meat onto Mozes’ plate, refuses to let him drink wine and turns off his bedroom light while the poor soul is trying to read.
Before Janos gets the chance to force Mozes to volunteer at a leprosy mission in the Ukraine, he keels over from a heart attack. But his ghost lingers on, appearing only to his frustrated son, who, on the advice of a spiritualist/mechanic (an entertaining Zsolt Anger), tries to help the apparition find eternal rest. In the process, Mozes becomes a man — and a man of action — and Janos gradually accepts his son as he is.
Zomboracz supplements the central father-son tale with some quirky action on the margins. Janos’ overbearing sister, Janka (a commanding Eszter Csakanyi), takes up with his colleague (Jozsef Gyabronka), a top marksman with some unsavory secrets. Mozes’ mostly ignored, 8-year-old adopted sister Ramona (Lili Rozina Hang) is persecuted by her classmates for being of “ethnic” descent, and starts carrying a shotgun in her violin case. Flirtatious addict Angela (a lithe Andrea Petrik) devises a way to complete her halfway house program after Janos’ death. And a big fish finally returns to the river from which it was caught.
Displaying an assured helming style, Zomboracz privileges visuals over dialogue in neatly choreographed sequences, making her points with detail and subtlety. Perfectly in keeping with her intentions, the actors underplay the often blackly comic scenes with a straight face. The combination of whimsy and poignancy within the framework of genre calls to mind “The Investigator,” an earlier production by KMH Films producer Ferenc Pusztai. The chief criticism here is that Zomboracz might have gone even farther in stylizing her visuals and tying her narrative events together; in particular, the character of Mozes’ mother (Krisztina Kinczli) could have been further developed.
As usual in most Magyar productions, the tech contributions are excellent. Of special note is the smart production design by Lillla Takacs, providing the sense of a place where time seems to have stopped. Ace lenser Gergely Poharnok (who also shot most of Gyorgy Palfi’s films, including current Karlovy Vary prizewinner “Freefall”) makes the most of well-chosen natural locations and interiors.