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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.
Greetings again from the darkness. Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes mesmerized us with his first feature film, SON OF SAUL (2015), the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film. That debut was an incredibly unique viewing experience centered on the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Mr. Nemes got much of the band back together for this follow up, and their collaboration, while a bit frustrating to watch, is again quite fascinating to look at.
Mr. Nemes co-wrote the script with his SON OF SAUL writing partners Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier (also the film's editor). And for those that share my frustration in watching the film, it's the story that is likely to blame. Is there a story? Certainly not in the traditional sense - which makes it difficult to follow or try to explain. Irisz Leiter (played by Juli Jakab) is first seen being fitted for fine hats in the elegant shop that bears her family name. We soon learn her parents both died, and she has been absent from the city for many years. The new owner, Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, 2007) is startled to learn of Irisz's return, though we aren't sure why he is so uncomfortable around her. Irisz soon discovers she has a brother (a surprise to her) and that he is quite notorious in these parts.
Much of the film focuses on Irisz trying to track down her brother, and then track him down again. That's the closest thing to a plot we get. Mostly it's a succession of scenes where people ask questions that never get answered. In fact, there is minimal dialogue to go with the now-familiar camera work of cinematographer Matyas Erdely who utilizes his SON OF SAUL first person perspective with background fuzzed out so that we see what one person is seeing. There is an underlying theme of what is apparently a corrupt part of a mysterious sub-culture in the society - even involving the Royal family. Keep in mind this is 1913 Budapest and war is at hand.
The set design and costume design are extraordinary ... especially the lavish hats from the era. The score is from Laszlo Melis (also from SON OF SAUL), and while Ms. Jakab is pleasant to look at, the story is disorienting and unfulfilling. The approach with the camera work is designed to force us to see things through the characters' eyes, but it's not enough to offset the incoherent and aimless wanderings of Irisz as she collects scraps of information that may or may not be pertinent. Perhaps you are smarter than I am, and will be able to connect the dots ... or at least find dots to work with.
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