Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 16 August 2006
Source Second Run DVD
ItIt goes without saying that the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising (30,000 dead, 200,000 fled into exile, the execution of the reformist prime minister Imre Nagy) was the critical defining-point in Hungary’s post-war political, social and cultural life. But it was also an event that was increasingly able to be referenced in Hungarian cinema, which although under the control of the Communist state started being given increasing latitude of expression from the early sixties. In the early years the contours of the depiction of the Uprising were kept rather vague (István Szabó’s 1966 Father); 20 years later the Uprising could be the central subject of a film (Pál Sándor’s 1983 Daniel Takes A Train). Károly Makk’s Love falls into an intermediary position, finally being given the green light after repeated rejections through the sixties, with the fate of political prisoners forming the background to the story.
It is true that the setting for Love is in 1953, under the repressive authoritarian regime of Nagy’s predecessor Mátyás Rákosi, but it’s based on two short stories by Tibor Débry, who was imprisoned after 1956; we’re dealing with a coded representation of the aftermath of the Uprising as the background to the film’s story. The focus is on the two women in János’ life, his mother and his wife Luca, and the effect his imprisonment has on them, and how a couple’s love can survive the rigours of political oppression. It’s Makk’s best film, subtle, focused on mood and emotional state, finely-crafted, a deeply felt statement of empowering humanism.
János’ mother is an elderly bedridden woman, increasingly sicker as the film progresses, living alone, looked after by her housekeeper Iren and surrounded by mementoes of her distant past as a young woman in a very different social world. These memories of hers are filtered to us through a series of very brief shots, a stream-of-consciousness effect that is the film’s main narrative structuring device, applied to all three main characters. But the status of these “flash” shots is not always subjective, representative of a character’s thoughts or memories, but sometimes is there to create mood, with shots of dripping water, the wooden exterior of a building, cobblestones, close-ups on trembling leaves, and so forth.
János’ wife Luca forms the audience’s point-of-view on the situation, even if the film opens with her mother-in-law. Luca is an impressive character, constantly walking an emotional tightrope as she attempts to project, particularly to her mother-in-law, a calm, cheerful façade, hiding the real turmoil of her life: her husband arrested, his fate (even whether he is alive or dead) unknown; fired from her teaching job; her furniture impounded by the authorities; and forced to move into one room of her apartment, with co-tenants forced upon her. It’s in keeping with the film’s subtlety and concentration on mood and emotional states that these narrative incidents are always alluded to (in conversation or in brief flashback shots) rather than directly dramatised as part of the main narrative flow.
The film’s story is structured around Luca’s repeated visits to her bedridden mother-in-law. There’s a certain jokey antagonism between the two—Luca mutters a “Silly cow!” under her breath before uttering a bright and cheerful “Good morning, Mother!”; and her German-speaking mother-in-law continually addresses her with the German equivalent of “Dumme Gans!” But in the end this is just the clearest sign of the tension brought about by the fine balance Luca is trying to maintain in her life, a balance which increasingly frays as the film progresses; and the mother-in-law’s own sniping at her is in fact an expression of the old lady’s strange mixture of pride, affection, and concealed gratitude.
The main purpose of Luca’s visits is to lend credence to a series of letters that Luca is sending, concealing from the old woman the truth of János’ imprisonment and maintaining the pretense that he is now working as a filmmaker in New York. The details of these letters are (deliberately?) fantastic, even ludicrous — “How can such a clever woman who’s read so many books believe it?” asks housekeeper Iren — with tales of a cinema seating 30,000 built on a mountain 2,000 metres high. Now, Luca may say, with a certain insulting derision, “Where her son’s concerned, she’s deaf and blind,” but there’s an implication that the old woman is playing along with this pretense. Why otherwise does the sequence of “flash” shots illustrating the letter Luca is reading to the old lady include a couple of shots of János’ prison?
So, the joking, the nagging, the requests, the story-telling (the mother-in-law’s tales of her youth, Luca’s writing of “János’” letters), and a kind of struggle between the two of them over their love for János all become the means by which each gives herself strength to survive János’ uncertain absence and at the same time offers a support mechanism for the other. But the news to Luca that János is alive and can be visited in prison comes too late for the old lady, whose illness increasingly worsens. She will never see her son again.
The film switches perspectives at the two-thirds point, leaving the two women (Luca nursing the close-to-death old lady) and turning to János. Obviously, this reflects the story’s basis in two separate short stories, but it also works to the film’s benefit. János has been the structuring absence of Love so far, the absent figure around whom the two women have incessantly circled. It’s right that the film now shifts to seeing things through János’ eyes, in the absence of the women and with a change in tone where language drops to almost nothing.
There’s an absurdist quality to János’ sudden, unannounced release from prison, which underlies the arbitrariness of the political order. He seems stunned, slowed-down, uncertain of himself and his surroundings, as he returns to his empty apartment; waits for the absent Luca; lies down in the grass outside; and gets caught in a downpour. The downpour of rain has a purifying force to it, cleansing János of his prison experience and marking a dividing-line in the film’s story before the couple’s final reunion.
Luca herself comes out of the rain, and husband and wife greet each other almost silently, with the emotional intensity of the moment given expression by the way the individual shots of the two separately eying one another are interrupted by flash-forwards to their eventual embrace. Here is the climax of the film, with the love of the title sketched in the simplest and most direct of ways. First, János stretches out on the bed and Luca sponges his tired and, we guess, prematurely aged body with a cloth. Then comes the final moment of the film, with a question from János and a reply from Luca, giving expression to the state of emotional fragility his prison experience has left him in and to her absolute love which has survived that experience:
Will you stay with me tonight?
Every night … as long as I live.