AS THE CENTURY closes, film has become the archive we can't ignore. So much of what we know or think we remember has its roots in a moving image. Some of these pictures have been repeated to the point of inducing boredom: dancing flappers to signify the "Twenties," Bogie saying goodbye to Bergman in Casablanca, that NASA rocket appropriated by MTV. Others--especially candid views of strangers with something to say--beg rediscovery as part of an ongoing project of review and reinterpretation.
So we shouldn't just sniff at another old film retrospective--even if it is, once again, a series of ancient movies from an Eastern European country, imported by U Film Society. Locally, we joke about Bulgarian documentaries and Rumanian puppet films, but there's truth to be found even in those, of course. And U Film's "Somewhere in Europe," an amazing collection of genuinely great and vital movies made in Hungary from the Fifties to the present, is something else again. Directed by such major talents as Miklós Jancsó, Márta Mészáros, and István Szabó, and assembled by U Film for no particular reason other than their high quality, the 13 films in the series comprise a small but significant part of our global memory bank.
Like their counterparts in Poland and Czechoslovakia during the communist era, Hungarian filmmakers couldn't go near contemporary realities, turning instead to flourishes of style and allegories set among small groups. They found rebellion in microcosm, and through a fascinating blend of showy Soviet montage and humbler, Italian-style realism. In other words, Hungarian directors hardly felt themselves to be locked away from what others were doing in freer nations. They had their own "New Wave," certainly, but it was sneakier.
More than any style or story, however, memory plays a serious part in these movies. Both Károly Makk's Love (screening Saturday at 7:15 p.m. and Sunday at 5:15 p.m.) and Szabó's Father (Tuesday at 7:15 p.m. and Wednesday, June 16 at 9:15 p.m.) are about people who fabricate the past so as to better avoid a dispiriting present. In Love (made in 1970), a young woman invents fanciful stories of her husband's success to tell her dying mother-in-law, the better to avoid the truth that he's a political prisoner. In Father (1966), a young boy whose father died in 1945 tells himself and others that Dad was a Resistance leader; the mostly private, esteem-preserving tone of his deception is abandoned much later when it's revealed that the now-grown son has much company in a country with no real heroes.
I was told by a Hungarian years ago that the big departure from communism in 1989 was a "melancholy revolution," one achieved without risky struggles and consequently with no glorified hopes for future change. But this doesn't mean that Hungarian artists aren't capable of high drama, whether it's acted out on a movie screen or implied by a sensitive and clever script. "Somewhere in Europe" (named after a seminal 1947 film by Géza von Radványi, which screens Wednesday at 7:15 p.m.) gets most theatrical with the inclusion of two late-Sixties/early-Seventies films by the acknowledged modernist master Miklós Jancsó: The Red and the White (Thursday at 9:15 p.m.) and Red Psalm (Friday at 9:15 p.m. and Thursday, June 17 at 9:15 p.m.). An uncompromising manipulator of shot length, color, and abstracted characters, Jancsó has long been praised for his control of epics that are simultaneously cool and angry. In my memory, none of his films has been shown in these parts for a very long time--which by itself is a good reason to catch up with this more-than-welcome series.
"Somewhere in Europe" continues nightly at U Film Society's Bell Auditorium through June 19. For more schedule information, call U Film Society at (612) 627-4430.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.