"Aglaya" ** 1\2 (out of ****)
It's not "The Greatest Show On Earth" (1952), the Cecil B. DeMille Oscar winning film about life under the big top, but the Hungarian film "Aglaya" (Aglaja, 2014) follows a dysfunctional family of circus performers and the hardships they endure.
The movie premiered in Chicago at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival, which is running throughout March.
"Aglaya" has been a hit on the festival circuit winning various awards at film festivals though it has yet to find distribution in America. In the end I don't think it will. Not because of the quality of the film but simply because it is Hungarian and there is limited interest in America for Hungarian cinema, which is unfortunate. If it's not a French or Italian movie, Americans generally have little to no interest.
The film is based on a novel written by Aglaja Veteranyi, based on her own life, with a screenplay by Kriztina Deak, who also directed the movie, her first since "Who the Hell's Bonnie and Clyde?" (A miskolci boniesklajd, 2004).
Playing Aglaja is Babett Javor (as a child) and Piroska Moga (as a teenager). This is really Aglaja's story. It is a piece of teen angst. A story about fitting in. About living in the shadows of your parents and trying to find your own place, your own identity. About surviving.
Aglaja's father, Tandarica (Zsolt Bogdan) is a famous circus clown. Her mother, Sabine (Eszter Onodi), becomes famous as "the lady with steel hair". She flies in the sky with a harness attached to her hair, making her known all over the world. And then there is her sister, Ana (Janka Dobi) who is handicap, due to a leg injury. Unfortunately the movie loses interest in this character and she disappears. It would have been interesting to see how both sisters dealt with the same themes.
The circus lifestyle is not appropriate for a family, especially for children. Aglaja sees her parents fight constantly, notices when they are unfaithful and fears for her mother's death, as she hangs in the air. These scenes are actually quite suspenseful. I was on the edge of my seat because you just never know if she will fall to her death. And we do see other performers injure themselves during their acts. It all seems to be just a matter of time until something will happen to Sabine.
The family is Hungarian but lives in Romania, in the town of Cluj-Napoca, which is not uncommon. They are a success in the Romanian circus but desperately want to escape the country. The movie takes place during the communist era and the family wants to head west. And so they do, to Germany where they work in a circus under a Hungarian circus director (Andras Balint, who is married to the film's director, is an actor very well known in Hungary, appearing in several classics). But the child authorities catch up with the family when they learn both Aglaja and Ana are not ging to school. So the family is split up and the children attend a boarding school.
From this point on the movie started to lose me. Years go by, the sister's are split up, we learn the parents divorce and the remainder of the film will now focus on Aglaja as a teenager trying to deal with her place in the world. The problem is we don't really feel for her. We don't experience the same emotional toll she goes through. The movie has a mono-tone delivery. It doesn't seem to shift moods. We don't really get a sense of this family. The Ana character is a throw away, no development. The father seems to be an interesting character, being a famous clown, and as Sabine describes him, is a man whose life comprised of him falling on his behind. You could do something interesting with that character if he felt the same way. But these are just some examples of what the movie glides over. The movie just doesn't make Aglaja a compelling character. Everyone around her has a better story. They are the performers. They are the ones following dreams. Aglaja doesn't have dreams yet. That is the point of the movie but that doesn't mean it is interesting to watch.
Overall the performances in the movie are fine. I enjoyed Eszter Onodi as the mother. She thrives on fame. She will do whatever it takes. And as a older women her desire for attention is not just to be a great performer but to feel attractive, to known that men want her. Piroska Moga does have a "lost" quality to her, which is what the role needed. Zsolt Bogdan seems like a man beaten up by life. Trying to stay a step ahead of the game. But, how much longer can he go on living being a clown? In fact, how much longer can any of these characters go on being performers?
The movie ends on a hopeful note however. When at the boarding school Aglaja is caught putting on lipstick. For this she is scolded and told Jesus does love those that stand out in a crowd. At the end of the movie Aglaja walks around the city, the camera pulls away, going to an over head shot, capturing the entire area and all the people walking. Soon we lose Aglaja. She no longer stands out in the crowd. She is just one of those ordinary people walking. That is what Aglaja wants. It seems she found it.