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Transilvania’s Hungarian Day Takes on Trauma of the Past and Present

The Transilvania Intl. Film Festival’s Hungary Day pays tribute to the region’s largest ethnic minority – one that still plays a strong and vital cultural role in the region.

Once part of Hungary, the western Romanian city of Cluj, where the fest takes place, features schools, an opera house and literature in Hungarian – and, once a year, a large collection of films from its Magyar neighbor screen at TIFF.

The section features five narrative films and two documentaries screen this year, programmed by Zagoni Balint; there is also a tribute capped by honors for career achievement for Oscar-winning Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (“Mephisto”) and director-writer-editor Marta Meszaros, credited with more than 40 films over seven decades.

Several of the Hungarian films at TIFF take on once-taboo subjects, such as “1945” (pictured), Ferenc Torok’s evocative black-and-white account of the unwelcome return to a small town of Orthodox Jews who have survived the Holocaust. As was not so unusual throughout Eastern Europe after World War II, the family’s property has been taken over by non-Jews who are reluctant indeed to return it – and willing to resort to devious means to keep their windfall.

Another period film, “Budapest Noir,” follows a jaded Hungarian crime reporter as he encounters increasingly menacing threads of a web of conspiracy in the lead-up to the war. Director Eva Gardos, whose characters unearth “a world of pornographers, brothels and Communist cells leading to the highest echelons of power,” employs an almost psychedelic color palette to evoke the heady days of decadence that marked the interwar years.

In “The Butcher, The Whore and the One-Eyed Man,” set in 1925, director Janos Szasz recounts “a terrible scandal” in Budapest in which Ferenc Kudelka, a butcher, is slaughtered in his own abattoir, “cut up, bundled into suitcases and carried through the city streets to be eventually dumped in the Danube.”

Pre-Cold War evildoers notwithstanding, Zagoni says, the focus on controversial subjects often overlooked in mainstream Hungarian cinema is not limited to the past.

In Bogdan Arpad’s “Genesis,” a lawyer finds herself shaken by an encounter with a young Roma boy whose family has been killed by a group of assailants – one of whom she is defending in court. The story could have been ripped from today’s headlines in Hungary, where a tide of xenophobic rhetoric has energized extremists of late and where racist attacks persist.

Peter Politzer’s “Manhood,” meanwhile, takes on rites from the lives of three Budapest men, 91-year-old Dezso, who “says he was a cheat his whole life because he was a photographer,” 40-year-old Frank, who has to deal with kids, work and unexpected problems of his own making, and 13-year-old Samu, who has lost his mother and “doesn’t remember his father because he went back to Cameroon.”

Two Hungarian docus, the international co-production “The Granny Project” by Balint Revesz and “Ultra” by Balasz Simonyi, also cover lives lived in extremis. The former chronicles a seven-year quest by relatives to come to terms with trauma survived by grandmothers on all sides of WWII while the latter follows everyday athletes who join an extreme running race – in part to “release their demons.”

The film section is capped each year, naturally, by an open-air feast of traditional goulash and boot-slapping folk music – traditionally one of TIFF’s most packed events.

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