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1913, Budapest, in the heart of Europe. The young Irisz Leiter arrives in the Hungarian capital with high hopes to work as a milliner at the legendary hat store that belonged to her late parents. She is nonetheless sent away by the new owner, Oszkár Brill. While preparations are under way at the Leiter hat store, to host guests of uttermost importance, a man abruptly comes to Irisz, looking for a certain Kálmán Leiter. Refusing to leave the city, the young woman follows Kálmán's tracks, her only link to a lost past. Her quest brings her through the dark streets of Budapest, where only the Leiter hat store shines, into the turmoil of a civilization on the eve of its downfall.
"Sunset" (2018 release from Hungary; 142 min.) brings the story of Irisz Leiter. As the movie opens, we are told it is "the early 1910s", and Irisz has come to Budapest, hoping to land a job at the Leiter House, a legendary upscale hat store. Turns out the store was founded by her parents, who passed away when she was just 2 years old. The current owner, Mr. Brill, declines to give her a job, despite her obvious talent and pedigree. Later that day, Irisz is confronted by a guy who claims to act on behalf of her brother. Irisz is bewildered, not knowing that she had/has a brother... What happened to her parents? what is the deal with this mysterious brother? At this point we are less than 15 min, into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the highly anticipated new movie from Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes, whose debut film, 2015's "Son of Paul", was as astonishing as it was harrowing and haunting (and promptly winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Movie). I had it as one of my top movies of that year as well. Now three years later, and with a generous budget (for Hungarian standards), comes this. My expectations were high, alas way too high as it turns out. Where did it all go wrong? Let's start with the most obvious: a movie of this kind will succeed only if one buys into the story and is invested. emotionally, in the characters. I am sorry to say that the movie fails gigantically on that level. I hoped to become connected or invested into the Irisz character, but it just didn't happen. At no point did Nemes give me any reason or excuse to become emotionally invested. If you have seen "Son of Saul", you know that it was filmed in a very peculiar way (many extreme close-ups and filmed from behind the main character's perspective, as if you were walking right behind him), and Nemes uses the very same technique in "Sunset". Whereas it worked well in "Son of Saul", it does not in "Sunset", in fact, it works against the movie. Newcomer Juli Jakab plays the Irisz character, and frankly she looks utterly lost at times. Last but certainly not least, with a running time of about 2 1/2 hrs., the movie is far too long for its own good. A tighter edit could've cut at least 30 min. without losing any of the needed narrative. A darn shame.
"Sunset" premiered at last Fall's Venice film festival, and it finally opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati. The Friday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended so-so (about 10 people). I knew going in that the movie had not collected anywhere near the buzz of "Son of Saul", yet still I had high hopes. Alas, it was not to be, and in fact I can't help but feel that "Sunset" is a major disappointment. Of course I encourage you to check it out, be it in the theater (not very likely), on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
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