I enjoy watching Jancsó movies, and am gradually getting round to watching all his available films. The only one left for me is Red Psalm. Regrettably, even though Jancsó is still filming, his films no longer appear to get distributed outside of Hungary, not for the last twenty years anyway, even though they appear quite good, on the evidence of The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, which I saw a rare screening of. Despite being a master filmmaker, he is not an internationalist, his films mainly concern Hungarian history, I think that's hindered their distribution a lot.
A warning with this one: Jancsó includes live heart surgery in Cantata, so if that's going to upset you, don't watch it.
Cantata follows a fellow called Ambrus, a successful and exacting young doctor. Usually I resist the lazy option of comparisons, but this is a very Antonionian movie in style, although I think that is more a comment on delivery than substance. I have never particularly swallowed that general comparison (Jancsó is often compared to Antonioni), but here it is pretty obvious. Whilst Ambrus may resemble Piero from l'Eclisse, I think his story is more being used as a metaphor for the cultural shocks of the era in Hungary.
A visit from a friend from the old days is a cue for a long introspection. His friend's wife has a heart disorder and is due to be booked in for heart surgery. Instead of asking for Ambrus to perform the surgery, the friend instead requests the seventy-year-old professor who pioneered the surgery some decades ago to perform it. This old gentleman appears lonely and wasted, and hasn't performed surgery in two years. It's a bad idea to get the professor to do the surgery, but he gets through it nonetheless, even though the wife's heart stops. After the surgery the professor collapses and may well have died.
This is the trigger for a mental crisis for Ambrus. It's not exactly clear overall why this is the case, I think the reason is tripartite. Firstly he sees himself becoming the lonely old singleton prof, long in the tooth and desperate for another chance to perform surgery, the only thing that can any longer interest him or afford him dignity. Secondly is that his friend doesn't trust Ambrus to perform the surgery on his wife, even though Ambrus has performed the operation regularly. Thirdly he suffers a wave of inferiority feelings, having tried to get the professor removed and observed a brilliant last hurrah. This is tied into his kulak background. Through communism he has had a chance (via positive discrimination) to become a doctor, but he still feels inferior in terms of class.
This is my impression, these feelings aren't laid out for us on a plate, there's not much expositionary dialogue. This is the Jancsó way.
He takes a couple of days off to go back to his farm on the Great Plains (which you will see over and over again in Jancsó movies), the plains on which there is nowhere to hide, though this is only metaphorically speaking in this particular movie. He's looking for the strength to carry on living, but he isn't going to find it in other people. There's a tellingly innocent scene where he gets down in a flock of turkeys and gobbles with them. But doctors have to be serious folks, there's no room for childlike qualities when you have a scalpel in your hand and an open chest in front of you.
It's hinted that he's had life to easy, he's handsome enough so that the women come for him rather than the traditional other way round, he got somewhat of a free ride in med school because of his origins. He suffers from a nasty problem, he is now rootless, and there is no way back to the past for him. It is a sad thing to become different from those around you.
His friends all seem a rather dreary crowd, artists who are not very good at expressing themselves, though each seems quite self-impressed. Within the crowd is a woman he is having a relationship with, marriage seems inevitable although it is clear that it will not provide him with a solution to his problems, but what else can you do when you have made a house, but live in it? I think overall Jancsó is aiming at capturing the malaise arising from era change. I've come to see him as a historian or chronicler, in my opinion that is the best way to approach his films.
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