Sunday, February 16, 2014

Film Review: The Confrontation

"The Confrontation"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

With the death of the influential Hungarian film-maker Miklos Jancso I wanted to write a review as a tribute, even though I did write a "tribute article" on Jancso for the Hungarian newspaper "The Budapest Times". But I wanted to review one more movie of his.

Jancso was part of the "Hungarian New Wave", as it was called in America, in the late 1960s-early 1970s, along with fellow Hungarian film-makers Istvan Szabo, Karoly Makk and Marta Meszaros (Jancso's ex-wife). Jancso was a deeply political film-maker, comparable to Jean-Luc Godard in the "French New Wave". Jancso's films focused on historical times in Hungary's history as a way to comment on current conditions. There is actually a term to describe this - "aesopian". Most critics and the general public, tried to interpret Jancso's films as commentaries on the 1956 Uprising, as the Hungarians tried to force the Soviets out of Budapest. It was a failed attempt. But, it remains perhaps the single most important moment in modern Hungarian history. All I need say is '56 to a Hungarian and they understand.

In "The Confrontation" (Fenyes Szelek, 1968) Jancso doesn't go as far back as some of his other works. This time the setting is post WW2, 1947 to be exact. So most audience members watching the film in theatres could recall these times. Unlike say the subject matter for "The Round Up" (Szegenylegenyek, 1966) which was the Hungarian revolt against the Austrians in 1848. "The Confrontation" also marked the first time Jancso shot a movie in color.

At this time in history, the Soviets have already advanced through the Eastern Bloc to get to Germany. The war is over, the Soviets stayed and thus the beginning of the cold war. Now Hungary is a communist country. What's next? This is what "The Confrontation" is about. Now that the communist are in power what will happen? How will they advance their agenda? This is still new to a lot of people at this time. They didn't want a Soviet occupation. How was the party going to help the workers?

We follow a group of students from the Peoples College. Their aim is to make the university system more accessible to working class students and introduce them to Marxism. They find themselves in a "confrontation" on a monastery college campus, attempting to debate the students. But what soon happens is another 'confrontation" this time between the communist college students, who are presented as carefree and innocent, singing and dancing. You see, the students themselves are divided on how best to promote the communist agenda. Through peace, and intellectual debate or through violence and force.

The student advocating peace is Laci (Lajos Balazsovits), who was also in Jancso's "Private Vices, Public Virtues" (1976). After others feel his approach is not working and his methods are not persuading the minds of the monastery students, Jutka (Andrea Drahota) feels a more direct, violent approach would be more effective. Trying to compromise with non-believers will not work.

Of course this setting of college campus revolts also reflects "modern times" of the 1960s. The film was made in 1968, a time when college protest, especially in France and America, were common. Protest against the political system, the Vietnam war..ect. So again, Jancso is using historical times to comment on current conditions. It is easy to protest but difficult to lead. Once you win your battle, actions will be needed to implement your agenda. Someone could give a great speech but won't know how to get things done.

There is also the question of, would the powers that be, the establishment, ever give up their power? Who is really in control? Can protesting make a difference? Once they are put into power will another group not protest them as the establishment? Will they not fight to hold on to their power? This is an old Hungarian sentiment. The film-maker Istvan Szabo used to make films which argued, with great power comes great corruption. Power and influence changes people. Initially they may fight for change, to improve conditions, but once they are in power they too become corrupt. They become drunk with it.

Jancso and "The Confrontation" don't really have answers to these questions, like the students, the film is merely asking questions, trying to stir a debate. It wants to engage in an intellectual conversation. The question is, is there an audience for a movie like this today? These type of movies were common at one time, even in American cinema. Films which had ideas. Wanted to be about something. Had a viewpoint. Today we don't see much of that. Everything is too calculated. Takes the middle path. It is all about money. Making films which appeal to the most common denominator.

"The Confrontation" is filmed in a similar visual style to Jancso's "Meg Ker A Nep" (1972) and "Electra, My Love" (Szerelmem, Electra, 1974). It has a naturalistic quality to it. Many of the actors aren't professional, though Andras Balint does appear in the movie as a monastery student, who doesn't approve of communism. Balint was in the early Istvan Szabo masterpieces such as "Father" (Apa, 1967) and "Love Film" (Szerelmesfilm, 1971). The movie seems to use natural lighting, and is comparable to the neo-realistic movement in Italian cinema during the 1940s.

Although I would say the movie doesn't seem to capture the feeling of 1940s Hungary, rather it does feel like a piece of 1960s cinema. You can almost picture the leftist students singing songs about free love and wearing peace signs and beads.

I have now watched "The Confrontation" twice. It grew on me after a second viewing. If you are in the right mood it can be a an engaging film. But you have to be able to meet it at some level. You have to be in the mood to want to watch a movie about ideas and revolution. If you are, "The Confrontation" is a rewarding experience. It captures what made Miklos Jancso so important to Hungarian cinema and what made him a presence on the world stage. He truly was one of the greats. He will be missed.