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Intelligent films

Many years ago, I was at a musical in Dublin with a mate of mine. At the interval, we went outside. I asked him what he thought of it so far. Expecting a comment on the singing or the acting or the story, I was completely taken aback. He’d sat beside me through the first half looking at the same musical but through a completely different lens. He builds sets. He sits with producers and directors and listens to what they want on stage. He asks questions to make sure he understands their vision and then he goes and realises it. I write stories. So while I was caught up in personalities and voices, he was talking about backdrops and backflaps and flying bars and other terms completely alien to me. I’ve never quite looked at a staged performance in the same way since.

Last weekend, I went to the cinema three times. The first time, on Saturday morning, was to an invite-only screening of a diploma film, The Freelancer, written, produced, and directed, and starring the inimitable Steve Collison. For the 35 minutes or so that it ran, I was fully engaged, trying desperately to figure out how it would all end. I read more than my fair share of detective novels and crime fiction, so I’ve gotten quite good at figuring out plots (says she, immodestly) but he stumped me. I didn’t see it coming. And I was all about the story.

In the Q&A afterwards, though, there was talk about shots and angles and scores and all sorts of stuff that left me reeling. I was immediately back outside that theatre in Dublin listening to my mate go on about the sets.

On Sunday, I went to see the Granny Project (Nagyi Projekt) in Kino Mozi. Directed by Bálint Révész, it’s

… a seven-year-long investigation of three young men coming to terms with their heritage through the extraordinary lives of their grandmothers: an English spy, a dancer from Nazi Germany and a Hungarian communist Holocaust survivor. These guys move back and forth across Europe at the same time as their grandmothers set off on a virtual journey of memory. They transport their grannies back to their youth and in doing so provide us with an insight into the transcendental connection between grandparents and grandchildren, on the verge of the 21st century.

I’d double-checked to make sure it was subtitled – and it was – in Hungarian. English to Hungarian. German to Hungarian. And Hungarian as Hungarian. Perhaps because my understanding of German is limited to a handful of words and my Hungarian doesn’t stretch to fast conversation (the only story I fully understood was that of the English spy), I found myself looking at shots and angles and listening to the role the score played in the telling of the story. I even noticed the use of natural light. It’s an excellent documentary, by the way. Worth watching.

Then not an hour later, I was around the corner in Cirko Mozi watching Rossz Versek (Bad Poems), directed by (and starring) my favourite Hungarian director Gábor Reisz [remember For Some Inexplicable Reason?] and my favourite Hungarian actor, Zsolt Kovács. It got a rave review at the Tallinn Black Knights Film Festival and I loved, loved, loved it, too.

This is a film about a grown-up man longing to live his childhood dreams, and constantly wondering how his life would be had he done things slightly different. This [is] also a film about the frailties of masculinity, and how to grapple with them.

But again, I wasn’t paying as much attention to the story as I was to the shots and the angles and the sequences, things I’d never have noticed before. My silent wowing was in danger of spilling over into audible gasps. It’s bloody brilliant.

That filmmakers can see each shot in their mind’s eye and then tie a tattoo from one frame into another half an hour later. Or thread a piece of red cord throughout the film just so it can tie it all together in the end. That sort of visionary stuff is mindboggling.

Are these art films because they’re shown in art houses, small independent theatres? I don’t know enough about the genre to comment. For me, what makes them different from the ones that gross millions, is that they’re intelligent. They’re clever. They’re the type of film that I could watch repeatedly and always find something new. And that’s just what I plan on doing.

For some inexplicable reason

It’s been ages since I’ve been to the pictures. I generally catch up on what’s playing when I’m on a plane or when the DVD goes on sale. I’d forgotten how much I used to enjoy it. When I was living in Oxford, I had a membership card with the local arts cinema and saw everything that they showed. Likewise in Chichester. It’s a habit that I’ve gotten out of and one that I need to get back into again.

For weeks now some of my friends here in Budapest have been banging on about a low-budget Hungarian film  – For some inexplicable reason – that is so good, people actually applaud at the end. No one really explained what it was about so I went tonight on recommendations alone.

Written and directed by Gabor Reisz (a first movie for him), it’s nothing shy of brilliant. A review in the Hollywood Reporter describes it as an ‘unpolished debut’ but if this is unpolished, then Hollywood can keep its sheen.

Aron (Aron Ferenczik) has just turned 29. An unemployed film history graduate, he’s floundering in a world that wants him to wear a shirt and conform. His girlfriend, Eszter (Juli Jakab) has dumped him, taking everything with her. She took her hairs from the drain and left me, he tells us. How could you not fall for a man who would even notice they were missing?

Seeing Budapest on screen, the pubs and places I go to, the trams I take, the streets I cross, was all a little surreal. Seeing the family dynamics in action was hilarious (Zsolt Kovacs is brilliant as his dad).  Seeing his friends in all their normalcy was compelling. This is a movie about life – it doesn’t require any great imagination and far from transporting me into a world of fiction and fantasy, it was like getting a peak at a reality from a rather clever perspective.

And it gave me something to think about. Aron’s fixation with a childhood incident at school where his friends stood by and watched him get beaten up was an uncomfortable reminder of some of the grudges (thankfully they are few) that I hold. On my way home, I made a conscious decision to let them go. That was worth the ticket price alone.

His bumbling confession to Eva Ink (Kata Bach), a ticket controller he meets on the tram and tracks down to ask out was endearing. She thought him mad. I thought him fabulous and wished, not for the first time, that there were more men like him the world.

His blithering rant at the young one he picks up one night should be mandatory watching for anyone coming of age – it was certainly a shout-out to the sisters.

Aron isn’t a drinker but pushed to the limit he goes on a binge and wakes up the next morning having bought a ticket to Lisbon (sort of puts anything I’ve ever done in the shade). He goes. And he comes back. And somewhere in the interim he makes his peace with the world.

My friend KT asked me afterwards if it was a universal theme or one that was uniquely Hungarian. Would it travel, she wondered? Variety reports that the World Sales Rights have been bought by a Paris outfit. And Reisz himself has said:

Only if we create something meaningful, that has a relatable story, can we have a better chance of exporting our film in and beyond our borders.

It’s universal. It’ll travel. It’s a film worth watching. And one worth buying to watch again. It’s on my shopping list.

[How come I didn’t know about the great Hungarian jewelry design shop in Művész? Shame on me. ]