When I went looking for it all I could find was a TV rip with no English subtitles. So, like Chongqing Blues before it, I watched it deaf, so to speak, with only a meager plot summary in front of me. Turns out it works even if I didn't always know what was happening. The movie revolves, indeed the plot seems to orbit its lead like a satellite, around a young student who isn't allowed into a state sponsored film school because his father was just arrested very publicly. Humiliation and anger leads him down a different path working for a land surveyor out in a rural area away from hypocrisy of the state...or so he thinks. It isn't long before he starts seeing that the peasants whose land he works are under the thumb of the government too. Everyone suffers, everybody gets ground down. Maybe picking up his camera again is the best thing he can do.
It'd be slightly dishonest of me to spend much time on the story or script, as I only really 'got' about half of it. But I don't need an illustrated guidebook and a flashlight to know good filmmaking when I see it. Director Sándor Sára has to be commended for making his images satisfying and wholesome and not in the Davey & Goliath sense. His stark, often purposely underexposed black and white compositions and the images he finds/creates do a number on your brain, then seem to slowly make their way to your stomach and start nourishing you. The material here is bleak, but the sense of outrage meeting love for human courage, animal beauty and the sanctity of the ground beneath our feet and the trees over our heads, could keep you alive during a hunger strike. The sequence towards the end of two horses tied together is the kind of thing you never forget; ditto the faces of the gypsies our hero photographs during a government mandated health inspection, none too subtly echoing the holocaust. The boy may be in disbelief but his camera and Sára have no choice. There is no faking the faraway look in the many eyes that stare through the lens and right into us. I do hold out hope that someone's going to track down the rights to this film, translate it and give it the resurrection it deserves but in the meantime, even in a butchered, pixely, untranslated, cropped .avi file, it's still a powerful experience. Outrage and the need to change things for the better is something one doesn't need language for. We all know the look in someone's eyes. The one that says "enough is enough."
An interesting footnote: the Czech films bear far more stylistic similarities to each other than the Hungarians. Firemen's Ball, Capricious Summer and A Report on the Party & The Guests all share a current of bitter, dark humour, all make heavy use of close-ups of the befuddled and/or menacing faces of their characters, use fairly classical editing and the staging makes use of the fore and background. There's a sense of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, so to speak, allowing us to get lost in an abstract sea of people and conflicting ideas. Now, obviously the fact that 2/3 of the Hungarians were made by the same guy, but Sára and Jancsó have, beyond political conviction and a appreciation for big, open landscapes, nothing much in common. This could be because no one in the world made films like Jancsó at the time (Theo Angelopoulos could be called a stylistic contemporary, though obviously the men had vastly differing sensibilities), but Sára directs here like he's connecting beautiful tableau of suffering, mimicking his protagonist's interest and evolution as an artist. Both are valid approaches and as we'll see Jancsó was no slouch. I can't fight the feeling that something is being forgotten here...something important.