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It is 1947; the Communist Party has just taken power in Hungary. In Jancsó's first color film, young students at a People's College have a debate with seminary students, but worry it will escalate into a fight.
Does it matter if a concept is powerful but damaged in the execution? It probably does. We send things out in the world hoping they work, a broken bowl does not. But, you are going to be a much happier viewer and person, once you realize that nothing around us is really ever finished, merely abandoned in various states of doing and repair.
Artists who consciously strive for perfection only achieve their limits of vision - and conversely limit ours. They may offer an overwhelming sensory experience, surely Kubrick did several times, Coppola once or twice. But that is at the cost of breathing room for the soul.
Antonioni was a master of cultivating from deliberate damage in the story - people went missing, in one striking instance of Blowup, right before our eyes, affairs were not consummated, the mystery was not solved, reality was instead open-ended, elusive, currents of cool transparent air from a window. Inplace of ordinary flow, our eye climbed out through the curtains on a journey of meditation and landscape.
Jancso came to Italy when Antonioni was on his way out, during turbulent times. He decided on a youth film, a 'May of '68' thing. But he does not settle for protest or rebellious paean, though a communist himself and out of the reach of Hungarian censors. He goes to work with Antonioni's leading lady and cinematographer.
He gives us confused , unstable times through a single woman's confused , unstable experience on the streets. She is a journalist, someone ostensibly investigating the 'truth' of stories. The pursuit is for clarity. While reporting on a protest, she is assaulted by youth of some far-right organization and that begins to tear in her sense of reality.
The experience is anxiety and how that perturbs reality and seeing, a subject more deeply of interest to me and one that covers many great works. The most usual way of doing this is by creating hallucination, for example Repulsion.
There is no hallucination here. We move through space as she does, without explanation, going places without clear purpose, meeting people without proper introductions. Narrative seems muddled, but only because it is so in life. Vision is otherwise clean, time is 'real-time'. Light is transparent. Jancso doesn't smother you in stylistic texture, the film glides on air and the passing of time.
Even so 'ordinary reality' can be oblique, the film demonstrates why. It's so cool the way it was envisioned.
The film is almost entirely whispered in voice-over. We try to make sense of shady happenings by following the story she narrates. But her own thoughts intrude. Our eye is tethered to her but now and then floats away as her thought does. And this is how we experience reality, in a continuous mindstream of events and our own running commentary to them. Half of cinema is about this for a reason.
This notion of transparent seeing subject to intrusion extends to the architecture of her house - a pool of open space bared naked by glass doors on all sides, vulnerable to the gaze.
So why does it falter? I think it is a matter of language and having a foreign filmmaker unable to mould the Italian temperament - Italians are not introverts, they keep a lot on the surface. It works in comedy, but you have to mute them for more serious stuff. Antonioni knew just how.
Vitti is our only anchor here, and though a ravishing blonde, she does not give off the impression of being really immersed in her experience. She is acting on her skin - and this is a film about deep commitment, to love, to political dreams, to the recording of truth. The spell is broken.
Still. I think you need to have this at some point. A more powerful viewing would be to note what is retained and what not four years later in Antonioni's Passenger, nominally the most powerful cinema I know (similarly hampered by an actor acting). Notice the one element that is not transferred and how that changes everything.
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