Saturday, March 20, 2010

Film Review: Children of Glory

"Children of Glory" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Children of Glory" (Szabadsag, szerelem 2006) is a film I have been wanting to watch since I first heard about it, some years ago. Sadly, the film never found distribution in America. Recently I bought the film on DVD while in London, where it did play theatrically.

A movie such as this is a bit difficult for me to review because of the personal baggage I bring with me. The film chronicles what is perhaps the single most important event in recent Hungarian history, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It has had a lasting impact even on the generations which followed. I wasn't even born in '56 but the stories have been told to me. My parents were too young to participate. My mother was only a year old and my father was nine. But my grandparents can recall these times.

There have been other films which have tried to deal with this moment. One of the best may be Karoly Makk's "Another Way" (Egymasra nezve 1982) which dealt with the aftermath of the revolution. In more recent times there was Robert Koltai's bittersweet "Colossal Sensation" (Vilagszam! 2004). And many interpret the films of Miklos Jancso as being social commentaries on the revolution without ever directly mentioning it. Despite this, I've never seen a movie which so directly deals with the revolution starting from its origins.

"Children of Glory" however takes an approach I've noticed other films take when dealing with a moment in history. It shows us what happened through the eyes of a love story. We are seeing history being made while it interferes with the lovers. I don't always like this structure but it has become an easy plot device for screenwriters to tell their story. You need to have characters an audience can relate to. The characters are merely symbols, pawns of a larger story.

For those unfamiliar the Hungarian Revolution started as a college based movement as students tried to rally the people behind their cause, after taking a cue from the Polish. The majority of Hungarians wanted the Soviet Communist to leave Hungary. The revolt started October 23rd and lasted until November 10. Within those 12 days thousands of Hungarians were killed, including women and children, and various reports were made that the Soviets also raped the women. It was thought, for a time, that the Americans would help, since we were in the midst of the Cold War. America would see the Hungarian people reject communism and come to their aid. But it didn't work that way as the then Secretary of Defense went before the U.N. and declared Hungary was not an alley (a moment the film leaves out), thus leaving the communist in control until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the film we follow a water polo star, Karcsi Szabo (Ivan Fenyo). He has dreamed of going to the Olympics. While he is not very political, he and members of his team, do badmouth the Soviets. Though his main priorities in life are water polo and hanging out with his best friend, Tibi (Sandor Csanyi) and trying to pick up women. But all of that changes when Karcsi meets Viki Falk (Kata Dobo), a politically charged college student. For her Karcsi will make the leap into politics. But will it cost him his dreams of making it to the Olympics?

There is also another aspect of the story, which does deal with sports. At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, in the semi-finals the Hungarians went against the Soviets in what has been described as the most bloody match in history. Here we are getting a story of how sports can unite a people. You can compare it to Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" (2009) if you'd like, but I think "Children of Glory" does a better job.

The film was directed by a new name in Hungarian cinema, Krisztina Goda. I have reviewed one of her films on here already, the charming romantic comedy "Just Sex and Nothing Else" (Csak szex es mas semmi 2005), which was kind of a Hungarian Bridget Jones Diary. Nothing in that film suggested, to me, that Goda would ever want to tackle such a serious topic as this. This is clearly her most ambitious film. Though I have not seen her latest work, "Chameleon" (Kameleon 2008) which was Hungary's official entry at this year's Oscars.

Goda uses many of the same actors here that she did in "Just Sex", Sandor Csanyi, Kata Dobo and Karoly Gesztesi, who plays the water polo coach. But the comparisons stop there.

If there is one thing I don't like about the film it is that the film feel too slick, too well packaged, all the chips fall into the right places. It doesn't feel personal enough, which is strange given one of the screenwriters is Eva Gardos, who has also tried her hand at directing before. She gave us the English language film "An American Rhapsody" (2001) based on her experiences with the Hungarian Revolution. A young Scarlett Johansson plays her alter ego. The film is a modern masterpiece though I can't quite use the "M" word to describe this film, even though Joe Eszterhas was another co-writer, who is probably best known for writing "Basic Instinct" (1992) and "Showgirls" (1995).

"Children of Glory" wants to be one of those uplifting, emotional stories which stirs patriotic pride within you. It wants to make you proud to be a Hungarian. For the majority of the film it works. It is an inspirational story. It is a well made, finely acted film that deserves an audience.