Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Film Review: Sunshine

"Sunshine"  **** (out of ****)

The first time I saw Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine" (2000) I thought it was a masterpiece. The greatest film Istvan Szabo, the famed Hungarian filmmaker, ever made. In fact, I used to go as far as saying, only he could have directed this movie. It was the story his entire career was leading up to. For me, it was the story of Hungary on-screen.

But then one day, years later, I saw it again. My feelings changed. "Sunshine" wasn't the story of Hungary at all. It was the story of Jews living in Hungary and in particular a family called Sonnenschein and the persecution they face during the 20th century in Budapest. My memory played tricks on me. I didn't enjoy "Sunshine" as much anymore because it wasn't the movie I remembered it being.

So, I watched it a third time, in anticipation of this review. Going into the movie a third time I hoped I would be able to, possibly, accept the movie for what it is and not what I wanted it to be. But, yet again, I came away with a different impression. Yes, "Sunshine" goes through historical moments in Hungarian history. Yes, "Sunshine" deals with the trials and tribulations Jews faced in Hungary. But, now I see a movie that argues against assimilation. We are so often told assimilation is a good thing. It brings people together. It makes us one. Here is a movie though that shows people, it doesn't have to be Jews but rather any group that feels like an outsider, who try to fit into a world which won't accept them no matter how hard they try to be like everyone else. And that story I find touches my heart.

Assimilation only works if others start to see you as one of them the problem is they never will. You will always be different because of your religion, your skin color, your gender, your ethnic background. In the end, you must accept who they are. Don't try to please the masses because you will never be able to. Cherish your culture and your people. They are the ones that will accept you when no one else will. For example. our President of the United States is African-American but to many people, those with hate in their eyes, all they see is a black man. No matter what he has accomplished, he, and others like him, will always be different.

This is eventually what the Sonnenschein family learns. The movie follows three generations of male figures, all played by Ralph Fiennes, over the course of the 20th century ranging from both world wars to the 1956 uprising to the years after.

First we follow Ignatz (Fiennes) the oldest son of Emmanuel Sonnenschein (David de Keyser) and Rose Sonnenschein (Miriam Margolyes), who have made their fortune creating a liquor called "Taste of Sunshine". Ignatz has a younger brother, Gustave (James Frain) and a cousin his parents have adopted, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle). Ignatz is studying law and hopes to become a judge one day. He very much respects honor and disciple and doing the right thing. He believes in tradition. He greatly respects Emperor Franz Joseph which puts him at odds with his brother, who has communist sympathies.

Ignatz has also fallen in love with Valerie despite the protest of his mother and father.

Next there is Adam (also played by Fiennes) the youngest son of Ignatz. Adam becomes a famous Olympic gold medalist in fencing. And lastly there is Ivan, Adam's son, who also becomes involved with the communist after WW2, by capturing fascist. He rises quickly in the communist ranks and begins an affair with a married woman (Deborah Kara Unger).

Each man found himself on the path to greatness and only one stood in their way, they were Jewish. It wasn't directly said at first, only hinted at. But slowly society tried to chip away at each man's sense of belonging. At first it is suggested. change your name to something more Hungarian and leads itself to the family actually changing their religion.

At each corner the family, now called the Sors, tried to find a place in society and each time they were seen as nothing more than Jews. This causes each man to hate himself. Why, oh why, did he have to be born different. Why do Jews cause such problems in the world  they wonder? Each man has isolated himself to the point he looks down on his own and believes the anti-Semitic logic he hears around them.

Even today don't we hear this chant? Minorities should change, embrace American values once they come to this country. In Europe it has been an old story, Jews never fit in because they didn't assimilate. They lived near each other and created Jewish neighborhoods. They spoke Hebrew, never learning the language of the country they settled in. They only made friends and communicated with one another. This caused suspicion in the eyes of others. It was and remains the same story for another group of minorities in Europe which have been persecuted, gypsies. They too have been accused of not assimilating.

One of the best things about "Sunshine" is the performance given by Ralph Fiennes. Each character he plays has a distinct personality. He makes each character different. He takes up the majority of screen time but never becomes boring to watch. He consistently demands our attention.

I would have preferred Szabo tell this story in the Hungarian language but if he did so we would not have the brilliant performance given by Fiennes which  wrongly was ignored an Academy Award nomination. The movie as a whole was over-looked, which was one of the many reasons why I have such harsh feelings towards the Academy. Fiennes should have won the Academy Award for his performance in this movie and Szabo should have been nominated for best director and the movie up for best picture.

Also worth mentioning to American viewers that watch this movie, you will get to see the legendary Hungarian actress Mari Torocsik, considered one of the finest actresses in Hungary during her time. When she was at her peak in the 1950s she was a beauty with a natural screen presence. Here she plays the family's maid Kato. My guess is she does not know how to speak English or at least speak it well because she does not utter one line of dialogue, still, it is wonderful to see her on-screen. She has appeared in Hungarian movies since this film but in America we are denied the charms of Hungarian cinema. Not that anyone but myself cares.

At two hours and forty minutes "Sunshine" could have actually been a longer movie and we wouldn't mind watching it. The movie has that sprawling, epic feel to it, going through the generations of this doomed family. This could have been a mini-series. The movie breathes though. It has a natural flow. It doesn't feel rushed. Szabo tells this story with great confidence. He has faith in this story, which he co-wrote along with Israel Horovitz.

"Sunshine" is a powerful, emotional story. The majority should be able to relate to this movie.