For long stretches of “A Woman Captured,” Hungarian docmaker Bernadett Tuza-Ritter’s clammily harrowing, gradually hopeful debut feature, it’s hard to look past the time- and toil-ravaged face of the woman in question. Literally so, in one sense. Tuza-Ritter keeps the camera so claustrophobically close to her subject, a single mother trapped for over a decade in abusive, unpaid employment as an all-purpose servant to a well-off family, that her immediate environment and circumstances often blur into oppressive gloaming: If it takes time and a little intuition to glean the precise details and circumstances of this woman’s captivity, this tunnel vision is apt and evocative in a study of woman so debased and disregarded that even she has lost sight of her own life. It’s for the camera lens to see it, reflect it and ultimately, in a rare and riveting directorial intervention, lead her back to it.
It’s this unexpected pivot from observation into action, as the documentary boldly takes on the mechanics of an escape thriller, that should launch “A Woman Captured” from the festival circuit into multiple avenues of international distribution and online streaming. Having premiered last year at IDFA, Tuza-Ritter’s film will next compete in Sundance’s world documentary strand; a long string of future festival appointments is a given, with programmers for humanitarian and women’s rights-themed showcases particularly likely to take note.
The aforementioned face belongs to downtrodden domestic dogsbody Marish — not, we critically come to learn, her real name — and it’s a visage compelling in its storied crevices and solemnly sunken aspect. When she mentions that she’s 53 years old, the film allows the viewer a moment of astonishment: Most will have guessed at least a decade older, while a briefly glimpsed photo of Marish at 42 appears to have been dredged up from half a lifetime ago. That’s no accident or trick of the light. For 11 years, Marish has been under the thumb of Eta, the domineering matriarch of a spoiled middle-class brood, performing all manner of back-breaking household duties seven days a week in exchange only for meals, cigarettes and a couch to sleep on. She additionally holds down a part-time factory job, the meager wages from which also go directly to Eta: As Marish dolefully discloses at one point, she doesn’t even own a wallet.
“A Woman Captured” never delves into the cause of this grotesque exploitation — we’re left to presume Marish is paying off some manner of debt — but it’s no exaggeration to describe it, as the film does, as contemporary slavery, a phenomenon more prevalent in Hungary and across Europe than one would like to believe. Eta, a real-world villain who’s never seen on screen but maintains a chilling, hectoring vocal presence, sees nothing unethical about the arrangement: Indeed, she gladly accepts $370 from Tuza-Ritter (doubling as her own cameraperson) to enter her home and film Marish at close quarters for a three-month period, never suspecting that the resulting household portrait might be less than flattering.
For a brief time, as we watch the physical strain and emotional drain of Marish’s daily routine, we fear that the camera is merely doubling down on the exploitation of a 21st-century serf, who pines for the teenage daughter that Eta drove from the home some years ago. (Her older children don’t even know her whereabouts, another casually dropped hint of a past gone darkly awry.) Yet the director’s presence in the film grows less passive as a bond between the two women forms, calcifying into a plan of action after Tuza-Ritter, against Marish’s wishes, contacts the police to report the abuse, only to be shruggingly waved away.
“I hope this film will show people that everyone deserves to be treated with respect, even if they’ve last everything,” Marish says resignedly at her lowest ebb. As the strings shrilly quicken in Csaba Kalotas’ throbbing score, however, it’s clear that “A Woman Captured” is out to go one better, and see its put-upon heroine through to liberation. This development, suddenly cut to the tight, taut rhythms of suspense cinema, is both narratively jolting and emotionally relieving after a rigorously contained hour of Marish’s waking nightmare, though Tuza-Ritter somewhat overeggs the urgent genre stylings: The human story she unfolds is nerve-rattling enough before it’s cranked up to quite this extent.
“A Woman Captured” is instead most shiveringly effective when the practical restrictions and considerations of the filming setup — notably the need not to identify Eta or her family on screen — draw the audience with discomfiting intimacy into Marish’s tethered world and pain-tinted point of view. If the film doesn’t completely pull off that brazen shift in tone, it at least opens out into a generous, genuinely cathartic final act, one that points to a brighter future for this modern-day slave while making it clear that thousands like her have no such outcome in the offing, no ally in their corner. “What are you, Wonder Woman?” Eta sneers mockingly at Marish in one of her routine abusive rants; if the victim’s failure to snap seems in itself like a slow-burning superpower, it’s one she shares with many in her unthinkable position.