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I was lucky enough to see this film due to the efforts of the folks at the Second Run DVD company who recently arranged a retrospective of Miklós Jancsó's films in London, at which the director was in attendance.
What is critical about this movie (the first in a series of six following gravediggers Pepe and Kapo) is that it proves that Jancsó was not a one-note director as many have claimed. His famous internationally-renowned pictures of the sixties and seventies were predominantly shot in black and white, contained very long continuous takes and formalist camera-work. Thematically they were pretty much all about the absurdity of war, and specifically the aleatoric justice that war provides.
It comes as a shock then to see an incredibly humorous Jancsó film, with lots of close-ups and editing, such as The Lord's Lantern in Budapest. One correspondent on this website once described Jancsó's cinema to me as a glorious cinematic dead-end, this film irrefutably proves the contrary position, Jancso's style is remarkably protean.
The reason this film is not well-known in the West (in fact I believe that it has never had a release outside of special screening in the English-speaking world) is due to the fact that although the spirit of the movie is existential and universal, some of the humour is very Hungarian in terms of the references it makes. Apparent jokes about Lajos Kossuth and the also the thirteen martyrs of Arad as well as, I'm sure, several others, were well beyond this viewer.
What we have here is a work that is very similar in set-up to a Samuel Beckett play. We have two contemporary, very earthy, very foul-mouthed yet sanguine, gravediggers in a Hungarian cemetery, waiting for life to come their way. This is as close to traditional narrative as we get, the rest is deliberately anti-narrative, as confirmed by the director in his Q & A. Can we tell whether some or all of the characters we see are ghosts, or the scenes we see their fantasies? At several points in the film Miklos himself even appears both with and without Gyula Hernádi, the writer on most of his major internationally-successful works, both playing themselves, in a playful manner very reminiscent of Robbe-Grillet's brilliant Trans-Europ-Express.
The themes are related to modern life. Jancso related to the audience, (and he is quite a raconteur) that the only way he felt he was able to respond to the world any more was to laugh. And indeed how else to respond to an uncohesive world where random acts of violence are commonplace and almost go unnoticed? My country is at war with Iraq, and yet the progress of the war seems to have all the relevance to the daily lives of my countrymen as the result of a favourite quiz show. An example of contemporary nonchalance is provided by the unruffled twenty-something niece of one of the gravediggers, who calmly relates to her uncle at a party how she has just murdered almost her entire immediate family, with all the gravitas of a child bringing home a bad report card, whilst a few metres away an altogether ignored couple are humping away in public as if part of a scene from an Etty painting.
You can tell that there is a sort of pagan fondness for dying in this movie, hardly sour or pessimistic in tone, just as if it were a comfortable sleep or a new house you might move in to. That's really the brilliance of this movie, it's kind of like a requiem, or more accurately a solitary ditty for a world that has gone, a world where there was a collective meaning, or a collective purpose, and which is now altogether senseless and fragmented (one of most similar pieces of art I can think of would be the found in the lyrics to the folk song The Miller of Dee which you may find worthwhile to google). In fact from an artistic perspective it is almost a validation that the film has gone unnoticed! It shows a world where you must perhaps make your own sense, where if you are waiting like Godot for sense to come to you, you will be waiting an awful long time.
What I've said really describes only a quarter of this wonderful film, to my eyes it was a fragment of heaven reflected through many mirrors. I lack the local knowledge to understand much of the film's purpose, and I have not really touched upon the great humour of the film. One thing I must stress to you is that there are scenes of prolonged shouted profanities, that will make you a little nervous if you are not prepared. There is also a lot of commentary about the politics of power, and perhaps jokes about the influence of the Soviet Union.
After the screening Jancsó even questioned whether God cared any more about what went on in the world, perhaps there has been a sort of mutual abandonment, a quasi-amicable separation between Him and humanity. On that final point, I'll bid you farewell, if you think you'd enjoy this friendly, yet stylistically-bold film, hopefully your efforts to seek it out will be rewarded.
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