Saturday, October 13, 2012

Film Review: The Exam

"The Exam"  *** (out of ****)

The 48th annual Chicago International Film Festival has started this weekend and I have managed to already attend a few screenings.

As most readers know, every year when the CIFF comes to town I always like to attend screenings for the Hungarian films, since I am Hungarian and like to keep up with cinema from Hungary. This year only one Hungarian movie was playing at the fest. Naturally I made sure to attend the screening.

"The Exam" (2012,  A Vizsga) takes places in 1957 Budapest and revolves around the secret police and a test of loyalty members are subjected to.

The importance here is that the film takes place in 1957. There was an uprising in 1956 as Hungarians tried to get the Soviet Communist out of Hungary. It was a failed attempt, for a few reasons, "The Exam" shows us the aftermath of that experience.

In the past I have complained that many modern Hungarian films, which I have seen at various festivals, are "too Hungarian". That is not to say they are bad movies, I just wonder if a non-Hungarian audience will be able to comprehend the meaning the film would have to Hungarians. The movies are too much about Hungarian history. "The Exam", while dealing with a specific time in Hungary, is actually broad enough that it should be able to enjoy cross-over appeal.

The film, much like the German film, "The Lives of Others" (2007) shows us the world of secret police and double-crossings. The power the government had over its people and how no one was above suspicion. "The Lives of Others" was a bit more epic in its feel and scope, whereas
"The Exam" is more limited in its impact. Mostly because we are dealing with a smaller group of characters. We don't fully see the far reaching power the Communist had over its people. Or at least I didn't come away feeling the movie had shown us that.

Andras Jung (Zsolt Nagy, a familiar face in Hungarian cinema. You might remember him in "Kontroll" (2005) and "Children of Glory" (2006, Szabadsag, Szerelem), both of which I have reviewed) is a hot-shot young member of the secret police. According to his superior, Pal Marko (Janos Kulka, who also appeared in "Kontroll" and "The Last Blues" (2002, Az Utolso Blues), Andras is his best and most trusted man. A true believer in the party. But what Andras doesn't know is that his loyalty must be tested, despite Pal's opinion. Andras must be observed and recorded, under constant surveillance. In order to make things interesting Pal and other party members like Emil Kulcsar (Peter Scherer) have created a situation where they feel Andras' loyalty will be put to the ultimate test.

By keeping Andras under such wraps certain discoveries are made, such as, a love interest. He has been seeing a woman, Eva (Gabriella Hamori, a very young and beautiful actress who has appeared in some very good movies. She was in "The Last Report On Anna" (2010, Utolsa Jelentes Annarol) which I saw at the fest and have reviewed). The party knows nothing about this woman but when they do find out about her we are led to believe there may be more to her than meets the eye.

The film was directed by Peter Bergendy. It is only his second feature film. His first film was an enjoyable, if slight, romantic comedy, "Stop! Mom Theresa" (2003, Allitsatok Meg Terezanyut) which was where I first saw Hamori act.

Bergendy has a good eye. I thought that at the time when I saw his first movie. He knew how to visually set-up a joke and with this movie he shows he knows how to create suspense. One very effective scene deals with Andras beginning to realize what is going on and Pal trying to escape from being seen.

The script was written by Norbert-Kobli, who wrote a comedy called "Made in Hungary" (2009) which I also saw at the CIFF. You wouldn't think either of these men would make a movie like "The Exam" with their prior experience but they pull things off nicely.

"The Exam" works because it creates a nice atmosphere. It has good suspenseful scenes, does a nice job of creating a time period, has good acting, especially by Hamori and Kulka and an interesting theme. The movie resembles a puzzle as we try to piece everything together only we keep losing the pieces and are never quite sure what the final product is suppose to look like.

Viewers that enjoyed "The Lives of Others" I would be willing to bet would get something out of this movie. Sadly though, "The Exam" has one setback which will prevent it from finding distribution in the U.S., it is a Hungarian movie. For whatever reason, Hungarian films are not distributed in this country. That's why the CIFF is so important. Many times it is our only opportunity to see particular films. And many times we will discover little gems like "The Exam" which would otherwise go unnoticed.