I consider the discussion about art to be a meaningless waste of energy, so I will let others sort out whether this is 'great art' or not. Whether or not this is a cinematic triumph against plot and character though, as championed by many, will invariably depend on your definition of cinematic. It does not meet mine, at least my definition of richly cinematic worth leaving the mind behind.
Here's the setup: it is apparently the 1890's, the place is a stretch of Hungarian plains rolling in the distance. A village of farmers has gone into a strike, with a battle being fought over their soul and minds. Now and then newcomers emerge from nowhere, young intellectuals who give spirited lectures on Engels and socialist theory, priests with their sermons and rites, soldiers of some distant , oppressive authority.
The people are by turns confused and spirited, bold and despairing. They lash out against each other, burn a church. They pray and hold court. Now and then they sing and dance about their woes, stabbing who they see as more privileged. Soldiers swell their revolutionary ranks, then break out and shoot them. It all happens in circles in that same featureless plain.
The allegory is stark, what the Czech had been for years leveling against Nazis: covert attack on the hypocrisy and tyranny of a distant state, by celebrating betrayed hopes and idealism.
It is a complex enough portrayal, but for one factor.
We see a lot of upheaval, a lot of pain turned into song. But we are not tethered into human soul for any of it.
We never know any of these people except schematically, as actors on a stage. A disembodied camera liturgically roams and roams around these faces, but we have no entry into the soft underbelly of actual lives. The Czech also suffer from this in their New Wave films.
It is a matter of presentation. In The Red and the White, Jancso solved this by first ushering us into a world at war, with stakes and limits, with blood coursing through people. So when he abstracted, we were moved the right distance away from the aimless bloodspill to view a more cosmic grind.
Here the abstraction is all done before we get there. The abstract world is already in place and does not transform again; the sparse setting, the visitations, recitations and ceremonies. You don't make the jump to an ecstatic view, and it has to be you.
The film is like this, entirely from the outside. It is like being taken to a room where people are calmly sitting with eyes closed and told this solemn air that you see is meditation. How do you know they're not sleeping?
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