Sunday, October 20, 2013

Film Review: The Notebook (A Nagy Fuzet)

"The Notebook" 
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

As the 49th annual Chicago International Film Festival enters its second week, coming to an end. I have managed to attend some more screenings.

One of the more powerful films I have seen at this year's festival is the Hungarian film "The Notebook (A Nagy Fuzet, 2013)". It was the only Hungarian film playing at this year's festival, so I made sure I attended.

"The Notebook" brings up the discussion, what makes a person violent? Some may say an individual is born that way. It is part of their genes. They were born with a disturbed mind. But "The Notebook" argues a violent upbringing will produce a violent person. We are all a product of our environment and must adapt in order to survive.

Young twin boys (played by Andras and Laszlo Gyemant) are children at the beginning of World War Two. Their father (Ulrich Matthes) has joined the army and must leave the family behind. The boys are separated from their mother (Gyongyver Bognar) as she has decided it is best if they live with their estranged grandmother (Piroska Molnar), who lives in the country.

The grandmother and daughter do not get along ever since the daughter's father died, some say the grandmother killed him. It has been years since they have seen each other. And when the twin boys show up at her house, it is the first time she has seen them. Initially she wants nothing to do with the boys or her daughter.

The grandmother is isolated from the world. No one visits her. There is no other mention of living family members, no friends or neighbors. There is an emptiness, a bleakness to her existence. The village is not unlike one you would find in a Bela Tarr film, much like the one presented in his final film, "The Turin Horse" (2012). The viewer can almost smell death around these characters.

The boys are terribly mistreated both verbally and physically by the grandmother. She never calls them by their names. She refers to them as "bastards", since she is of the opinion the boys really don't have a father and their mother is a whore. She beats the boys every morning in order to make sure they do their chores or else they do not get to eat. If they do not behave she will also lock them out of the house and they will have to sleep outside.

They never hear from the mother and keep a diary, a notebook, which their father gave them before leaving. He told them to write down everything they do and see. Their writings serve as the film's narration. We learn the boys have devised a plan of survival. The only way they will get through this ordeal with the grandmother and their new environment is by learning to accept pain. To be able to endure the hardships life throws at them and to learn to accept death and not be afraid of it.

At first the boys beat each other up, to the point they become bloody, next they kill animals and insects, they try to learn to do without food and to endure cold winters. But it is not only the winters which are cold. Soon the boys' hearts become cold. They have isolated themselves from their own emotions. This manages to impress a German solider (Ulrich Thomsen) who has taken over some of the grandmother's land. He feels the boys display a great discipline and strength.

The film, directed by Janos Szasz, is at times difficult to watch. It is amazing to see this transformation within these children. Life has dealt them a fatal blow and has turned them into monsters. Seeing nothing but cruelty and death around them their innocent childhood has been taken away from them. And there were probably many, many stories like this involving children during the war. Children separated from their families, learning to try to cope on their own.

Szasz and his cinematography, Christian Berger, who shot the Oscar winner, "The White Ribbon" (2009) and "Cache" (2005) have quite a good eye. The film is shot in black and white which adds a certain starkness to the film. Many shots of the empty landscape reflect the emptiness of these character's lives. But even in this small village the destruction of war will find them. You cannot escape death.

I have seen some very good Hungarian movies over the years at the Chicago International Film Festival. Not one of them was ever picked up for distribution in America. Not one! With those kind of odds, this film will probably not be released in America either. A shame. This is a very powerful film. A film which offers a very bleak hopeless message. We live in a world which produces violence and multiples it and soon we become so jaded by it, violence no longer shocks us, but, we embrace it.