Saturday, April 12, 2008

Film Review: Colossal Sensation

"Colossal Sensation" *** (out of ****)

Robert Koltai's "Colossal Sensation (AKA Vilagszam)" is a film which attempts to achieve a lot but because it sets such high standards for itself it can never accomplish all it wants to.

Robert Koltai may not be well known to American audiences, in Hungary however he is probably one of the most popular comics. Every film he stars in and directs becomes a hit. But American audiences may think of Koltai as an acquired tasted. He is comparable to Chaplin in the way he attempts to combine pathos and chaos. Though he lacks Chaplin's grace and comedic innovation. Koltai doesn't have the film making ability of Istvan Szabo or Miklos Jancso. His work is more conventional and as a result doesn't make the powerful emotional and political statements they sometimes want to.

"Colossal Sensation" is the first comedy I have ever seen dealing with the '56 uprising. Robert Koltai and Sandor Gaspar play twin brothers; Naftalin and Dodo, who grew up in a circus family to become famous clowns.

One day as children the boys play a game of jumping over an alligator Dodo (Gasper) accomplishes the feat but Naftalin (Koltai) is not so lucky. The alligator snaps at his leg causing him to have a permanent limp. When their father, another clown, Slomo (Gyula Bodrogi) lashes out at the boys, especially Dodo for not looking out for his brother it creates a relationship where the two become reliant upon each other. Even when love enters the picture, Lizi (Anna Gyorgyi) who wants to marry Dodo, the two brothers can't even be separated for the honeymoon.

One of the flaws with "Colossal Sensation" is the way the film is structured. It jumps around time periods too often and starts with a dramatic discovery about one of the characters, but, never explains how a character got into this new situation. The viewer has to do a lot of guesswork and add things together. For example the film jumps ahead in time as we find out Dodo has been arrested. We jump again in time and find out Lizi is married and when we take one more jump it is now Naftalin who is in jail. Too much of the film has been edited. The film doesn't have a long running time as it is, it is under 90 minutes, so why did Koltai feel the need to rush the story?

The film also provides no details for non-Hungarians about the importance of events taking place. Because I'm Hungarian I knew what to expect. I understand the significant of the '56 uprising but what about someone who doesn't know anything about Hungary's history? How will that viewer react? The film just throws us into this historical event without explaining what the people were fighting for and what happened after the revolution failed.

Several films have attempted to tell Hungary's history. Karoly Makk's "Another Way (Egymsra nezve)" did a beautiful job exploring the aftermath of the revolt. Istvan Szabo's "Budapest Tales (Budapesti mesek)" tried to use allegory to explain the country's history with mixed results and of a more recent nature Ildiko Enyedi's "My Twentieth Century (Az en XX. szazadom)" which also made the same mistake Koltai's film does, not fully explaining the country's history.

The legendary Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jansco was once ask why he, being such a politically bold director, never made a film about the '56 uprising. He said it couldn't be done. There are too many sides of the story to tell to successfully explain the events. To some extent Koltai knows this. His story is not in the broad sense how '56 impacted Hungary but instead how '56 made an impact on the lives of these two brothers. It is history as they saw it and experienced it. But, this approach is somewhat disappointing because these characters are not that interesting.

But this review sounds harsh. One can appreciate what Koltai wants to achieve. And the performances by Gasper and Koltai are strong. Koltai tries to play an innocent child-like man in the vein of Chaplin. He tries to win over our heart. Gasper is the strong brother and his performance is not as needy.

"Colossal Sensation" earns points for what it attempts to do and for the performances as well as some of the technical film making choices Koltai employs. He first shoots the film in b&w and then as the years go by switches to color. Some of the early b&w shots are quite visually beautiful and arresting. Though sadly in the end the film falls short of the greatness Koltai had in mind.