A surfeit of visual style, however impressive, works against the narrative energy in Hungarian drama “Genesis,” the sophomore feature from Magyar Roma writer-director Árpád Bogdán (“A Happy New Life”). Comprised of three over-stretched, tenuously connected tales about racially motivated violence in contemporary Hungary, the film also suffers from feeling slightly past its sell-by date, since the real-life events that inspired it, the 2008-’09 attacks against the Roma community, have been covered in other films such as Bence Fliegauf’s 2012 Berlinale competition prizewinner “Just the Wind.” But for festival audiences without such context for comparison, the condemnation of entrenched racism will still pack a punch.
Chapter one focuses on Ricsi (Milán Csordás), a Roma boy who lives in an isolated village among his extended family. Surrounded by forests, fields, bonfires, and barking dogs, it’s a location that barely looks as if it belongs to the 20th century, much less the 21st. In an open square, men hack apart freshly slaughtered animals and share the pickings. In contrast, the school where Ricsi travels by bus seems to exist in a different time zone altogether. There, the children learn English by repeating “My mother is a doctor, my father is a policeman.” The irony is overwhelming as Ricsi’s father has just been sentenced to two years in prison for the paltry crime of stealing wood.
The central event connecting the stories is the firebombing of Ricsi’s house and the slaughter of his relatives, an incident the boy barely survives. It’s a crime foretold through whispers and glimpses of newspaper articles about murders in other Roma villages, but in Bogdán’s editing structure, the investigative aftermath is a bit long in coming. Instead, the second (and most interesting) chapter focuses on Virág (Enikő Anna Illési), an energetic, hearing-impaired high school girl with a talent for archery and the courage of her convictions.
Virág has more than the usual teen turmoil going on her life. Her parents are separated and it’s implied that she has been abused by her father. Moreover, she’s just discovered that she’s pregnant by her older boyfriend Misi (Tamás Ravasz), a former special forces serviceman now in charge of a hellacious dog kennel, where the vicious canines are dying of a mysterious illness. But Misi doesn’t seem to be great father material — he’s somehow involved with the Roma murders.
In the Virág chapter, Bogdán most compellingly explores visual concepts to do with genesis and rebirth. In contrast to the deadly fires of the Ricsi tale, Virág is frequently surrounded by calming, womb-like water, whether in the swimming pool or the bathtub. And although the dogs are dying, there is also a new litter.
The final (and most heavy-handed) chapter centers on Hanna (former fashion model Anna Marie Cseh), an important attorney persuaded to take on Misi’s defense. Too frequently repeated scenes of Hanna pounding away on a treadmill make it glaringly obvious that all is not well with her. By the time her past tragedy is revealed, it gives short shrift to the resolution of the court case. And Hanna’s plan for the future plays as much too abrupt.
Family, its absence, and its re-formation lie at the heart of all the chapters. Bogdán, also a theater director known for his work with disadvantaged youth, grew up in a children’s home without a nuclear family and clearly puts a lot of personal material into his screenplay. The stories that the older kids tell Ricsci about a huntsman who kills and eats dogs and a monster in the woods lend tension to the first chapter and gives it the primal quality of a fairy tale.
Csordás and Illési, the non-professional actors playing Ricsi and Virág, do a fine job, but the camera loves Illési, and it’s her story that stands out whether it was meant to or not. Though ultimately overwhelming, the film’s technical aspects benefit from Tamás Dobos’s elemental, widescreen lensing, composer Mihály Víg’s mournful score, and the masterful sound design by Gábor Császár.