Friday, March 30, 2012

Film Review: The Maiden Danced to Death

"The Maiden Danced to Death" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The 15th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago has come to an end. For the closing night I attended a screening for the Hungarian film, "The Maiden Danced to Death" (A Halalba Tancoltatott Leany 2012).

For all the years I have attended the EUFF and the larger Chicago International Film Festival, I always make it a point to see films from countries most American movie goers avoid. As a film lover I am curious to see what all countries are up to cinematically. But, I suppose because of my Eastern European heritage I also take a great interest in Eastern European cinema. I am always excited to see films from Bulgarian, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Latvia and of course Hungary. Many people don't share my enthusiam. If they are going to watch a foreign language film, better to stick with French and Italian movies, two countries which Americans define as representing "Europe". But after watching a movie such as "The Maiden Danced to Death" it only re-enforces my feelings to seek out films from countries others don't pay attention to.

"The Maiden Danced to Death" is a very "Hungarian" film. You'll hear traditional Hungarian folk music, see traditional folk dancing and see characters wear traditional costumes. The film also features cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, who manages to bring the city of Budapest to life with his camera. I've never seen to city look so beautiful. It made me desperately want to go back. I remember walking on the streets of Budapest. It is for these reasons I recommend "The Maiden Danced to Death". But, clearly I am bias. How will non-Hungarian audiences react?

The film follows Istvan Udvaros (Endre Hules, who wrote and directed the film as well). He left Hungary during the communist era. By doing so he left his family behind also, which had to endure life under the harsh communist rule.

Istvan was a dancer, as is his brother, Gyula (Zsolt Laszlo). Istvan was a director of a dance company, but after not being able to re-enter the country, Gyula took over the company. Their father (Boris Cavazza) was a party member who lost his position within the party after Istvan left.

But that was all twenty years ago. Istvan has given up dancing and instead has become a promoter. He mostly deals with dance companies. Living in America Istvan has also decided to Americanize his name, now going by Steve Court. Steve has fallen on hard times. His wife has divorced him, he no longer sees his son, he lost control of his business and when he returns to Hungary, he finds out his brother married his old flame, Mari (Bea Melkvi). Not to mention his father has still not forgiven him for leaving his family behind.

In order to make things right Istvan decides to produce a show Gyula's dance company wants to put on. He arranges for a big European and American tour. Giving Gyula the chance he has always dreamed of. This also allows him to spend more time with Mari. But could Istvan have other motives?

Much of "The Maiden Danced to Death" resonated with him. I understand the pain of leaving one's country. And how difficult it is to leave family behind. I understand the harsh rule of communism. I was the first person to go back to Hungary in my family. None of them ever returned. It filled me with great pride to be able to do it. Hungary had changed from the days of my grandparents. I could relate to the arguments the characters engage in. One side feels Istvan abandoned them, while Istvan feels he had no choice but to leave. To seek a better life. Those moments hit home for me.

Other contemporary Hungarian films have dealt with this theme of returning home. Look at Karoly Makk's "A Long Weekend in Pest & Buda" (Egy Het Pesten es Budan, 2003) or Marta Meszaros' "The Last Report on Anna" (Utolso Jelentes Annarol, 2010. Which I have reviewed). This seems to be common for Hungarian films to examine this issues. Perhaps Hungarians are still trying to come up with stories which deal with their new freedom since the end of communism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Besides other Hungarian films however, "The Maiden Danced to Death" reminds me of the work of the great Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura, in particular his "Flamenco Trilogy"; "Blood Wedding" (1981), "Carmen" (1983) and "El Amor Brujo" (1986). In those movies Saura placed a heavy influence on dance. He incorporated traditional flamenco dancing into the stories. In "The Maiden Danced to Death" dancing is a major component of the film. The characters are rehearsing a traditional folk dance but it is countered by a modern interpretation of the story as the characters act out their own drama dealing with love, lust and revenge and honor.

There are flaws with this movie though. I wish Mr. Endre Hules would have given us more of a background story for his character. Perhaps show a flashback. Give us more hints into his motives. And truly build on the conflict between Istvan and Gyula and what both sides had to endure during that time. The father's perspective his brushed aside but it makes the stuff of great drama. A communist party member's son leaves the country, disgracing the father. There is great internal conflict there and it is given no screen time.

Still, "The Maiden Danced to Death" does make some gestures to explore the more serious themes it presents. And, as I have said, I loved hearing the music, seeing the dancing and the costumes and the impressive cinematography of Mr. Zsigmond.

The film is making its U.S. premiere at various film festivals, though, I doubt it will get picked up and be distributed in America. Americans simply have no interest in Hungarian cinema. Too bad. They are missing some truly wonderful films if they would only open their eyes to the world of cinema.