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Tamás K. Kovács
Johanna, a young drug addict, falls into a deep coma after an accident. Doctors miraculously manage to save her from death's doorstep. Touched by grace, Johanna cures patients by offering her body. The head doctor is frustrated by her continued rejection of him and allies himself with the outraged hospital authorities. They wage war against her but the grateful patients join forces to protect her. This is a filmic and musical interpretation of the Passion of Joan of Arc. Written by
Probably the greatest hospital based Hungarian language operatic Christ allegory-ridden musical, that's ever been made.
It seems the football match some of the elderly patients watch on television whilst based at the Hungarian hospital within which 2005 feature Johanna is set, was in fact real. They observe Romanian striker Marius Niculae's goal in the fifth minute, FIFA.com have it credited after four; the match was against the watching Hungarians and ended two to nothing in favour of the Romanians in their capital city of Bucharest, thus dating that particular scene on the second day of 2001's June. It's a wacky way to begin a written response to a film, but just where DO you start with Kornél Mundruczó's adventurous; dizzying; somewhat nauseating but eye opening musical Johanna? Littered with style; substance (I think); off-the-wall content and sheer madness, there will be few who'll have seen this Cannes nominated 2005 piece and even fewer who'll have forgotten it after having seen it. Quite how the pitch for the film went, I'll never know but it is a mostly unforgettable; avant-gard fuelled trip into a barren and bleak world of all things medical and allegorical.
The titular Johanna is played by young Hungarian actress Orsolya Tóth, her involvement in a road accident giving her a severe bout of amnesia whilst being treated at a local hospital; her newfound existence following this accident a severely disjointed and disconnected period of living as she occupies a place seemingly cut off from the rest of the real world. Is she alive? Is she dead? Is anyone? Did she transfer to Hell after death? Is it Heaven? Purgatory? Perhaps she died and was reincarnated as the Second Coming, what with all her newfound powers. Is it all a dream? Director Mundruczó has fun toying with us; disorientating the audience with as many low budgeted tricks as he can and providing us with a plethora of scenes and sequences designed to instill confusion and, on occasion, just a sickly sensation.
Mundruczó shoots the locale of the hospital as if it were underground, with most of the scenes seemingly having been shot in pitch black following the taping of a battery powered torch to the top of the camera's lens and switched on for filming. The result is an odd sense of being in a place no one knows of, a place no one sees unless summoned to and with a real air of bleakness and hopelessness dominating the air. My guess is most of the film's budget is used in the opening sequence, a slow track following a bus crash and explosion in a public Hungarian street as emergency services arrive setting exactly the sort of tone for what the film isn't in any shape or form about. The eerie, pained sense or atmosphere of agony Mundruczó has his film instilled with makes itself known fairly early on, the credits coming up over a static shot of a medical kit as we hear all those bleeps and noises associated with electronic medical machinery. Off screen, dozens off people lie injured but our admittance as to being able to see their aid is denied despite a certain desperate sense of longing to see some kind of help in operation.
The survivors are taken to a nearby hospital, a doctor by way of a long take breezes down a dimly lit corridor in which the lighting frequently cuts out, perhaps disguising the film's edits. Each victim he encounters is gradually more injured, until he arrives at the final patient whom is obviously the worst for wear out the bunch; the sequence effectively establishing a sense of, by way of a doctor's moving physicality, progression onto things that are more disfigured and nasty as we progress thus echoing how the film itself branches out. The moment the rug is pulled out from under us, as we attempt to identify who's who and where the film might lead us having started out with a road crash aftermath before venturing to a place of aid for recovery, is the moment everyone in the hospital gets up out of their ward beds having finished the "drill" and breaking into song. The rug is pulled; we are flat on our backs and we don't really get back up again until after the film has finished. Johanna seemingly stays injured, though; the tests they administer to her and the time she spends there resulting in nothing bar a new existence as a nurse to go along with a sensational gift of being able to cure elderly men of their illnesses by having sexual intercourse with them.
It's here most people will point out the film's predominant ingredients are sex and death. Welsh born filmmaker Peter Greenaway is quoted on the IMDb to have said: "There are basically only two subject matters in all Western culture: sex and death. We do have some ability to manipulate sex nowadays. We have no ability, and never will have, to manipulate death." Johanna, whilst a Hungarian film which you'd be within your right to classify as of an Eastern ilk, toys with the prospect of using sex as a means of doing exactly that and manipulating death so as to essentially avoid it. For how long, the film is unspecific; if people are in fine health an hour after the opening bus crash then it might be for eternity. A love plot enters proceedings towards the end, Johanna remaining firm and sleeping with as many ill patients as possible so as to cure them but refusing to bow to a resident doctor's approaches. Mundruczó sees the humour in the whole thing; the line "Let's all rush to the Urology department" sung therein garnering raised eyebrows but smirks. The omnipresent juxtaposition of the characters' orchestral singing with the morgue-like locale of the hospital is probably a little too effective at times, with the overall result a just about watchable musical about enough to make the 86 minute runtime seem longer than it is, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
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