A diffident gay soccer player enters into a stormy relationship with a straight-identified builder in “Land of Storms,” a remarkably confident debut from Adam Csaszi. Boasting exceptional performances and evocative visuals, thanks to well-considered lensing paired with deep tonalities possible only on celluloid, “Land” barely puts a foot wrong. Too bad the last scene has such unfortunate resonances: The script discarded several facts from the case it’s based on, so why retain a finale that harks back to a more moralistic era? Notwithstanding this miscalculation, Csaszi’s trenchant drama of desire and homophobia deserves fest and arthouse attention.
Hungarian Szabolcs, nicknamed Szabi (Andras Suto), is a star player on a German team awash in the usual athletic machismo. Unsure about his direction in life and distressed by a fight with roommate Bernard (Sebastian Urzendowsky, “Goodbye First Love”), Szabi sabotages his favored position in the coach’s esteem and suddenly returns to Hungary and the dilapidated house he inherited in the countryside.
One night he catches Aron (Adam Varga) trying to steal his motorbike; rather than turn him in, Szabi has him help fix the tumbledown house. In isolation from the nearby town, their bond deepens, and in a strikingly shot scene set against a parched patch of earth, lit by the motorbike’s headlight, Szabi gives the drunken Aron a hand job. Awakening to this new desire yet uncomfortable with the idea, Aron mentions to his invalid mother Mari (Eniko Borcsok) that Szabi felt him up and he allowed it to happen.
Disgusted, Mari tells others, and Szabi is viciously beaten by some locals. Undeterred as long as Aron remains, Szabi starts raising bees — the first time he really smiles is when he’s tending the hive with Aron. Then, unexpectedly, Bernard turns up wanting to reclaim Szabi’s love and take him back to Germany. Now, after accepting his feelings for Szabi, and suffering torment from the malicious townsfolk, Aron fears he’ll lose his lover.
Csaszi doesn’t shy away from visualizing male flesh, and the homoeroticism onscreen is potently realized via a very masculine physicality that evokes the alternations of sensuality and force featured in the work of the modern dance company DV8 Physical Theatre (a striking scene of Szabi and Aron installing a glass-paned door has a dance-like grace). Deliberately recalling the male-on-male tactility on the soccer field and in the locker rooms, these sequences provocatively challenge the macho heterosexual posturing of the sports world, injecting an arousing tug of desire that’s not at all gratuitous.
“Land of Storms” is also unflinching in the way it depicts homophobia, whether in throwaway lines during sports practice or via brutal beatings in the rural town. By withstanding these slings and arrows of outrageous hatred, Szabi becomes a hero, not outright in the plot but in the subtext, and Suto’s inward-looking intensity magnifies that sense of a man who has recently come to believe he can control his own destiny, rather than be told by others how to live his life. It’s a performance worthy of awards, powerful yet vulnerable and finely attuned, like the film itself, to the effectiveness of silence.
Equally praiseworthy is the superb lensing by Marcell Rev, vividly realized in scene after scene that impresses with bold compositions and well-considered angles. Attentive to effects of light and shadow, Csaszi works beautifully with dusk and night shots that retain depth and warmth thanks to the full-bodied color hues offered by film stock. If only that last scene could be removed.