“Hungary in the 1950s. It was a time, my father used to say, when everybody he knew was either in jail or going to jail—or worse.”
The parents of writer-director Éva Gárdos fled Stalinist Hungary. Zsuzsi, now Suzanne, grows up a rebellious teenager in cookie-cutter U.S. suburbia, toting a cultural identity crisis. Margit, Suzanne’s mother, does not realize she is echoing her husband, Peter, about Hungary, when she notes, “Children here go out drinking and driving—and worse. Margit wants only—even irrationally—to protect Suzanne.
Gárdos’s film nowhere explains the couple’s politics, and we cannot help but wonder: Are the Sandors anti-Communist because they are fascist? But Gárdos’s film shows the discrepancy between the “free” country that the Sandors think they’ve resettled in—recall how repressive the U.S. was especially in the fifities—and its reality. Peter was not allowed to publish all the books he wanted to in Hungary; in the U.S., he isn’t allowed to publish at all. It hardly matters what limits opportunity, government or the marketplace. Either way, individuals are denied actual freedom and self-determination.
Mother and daughter lock horns, with Margit putting bars on her daughter’s bedroom window and an outer lock on the bedroom door. A boy is involved. “I won’t let you ruin your life,” Margit tells Suzanne. Suzanne visits Budapest on her own, learning for the first time all that her mother once endured.
Suzanne’s return brings a fantastic reconciliation, with mother and daughter each commending the other for bravery. (Margit: “We are what we are because of our past. You taught me this.”) The truth is, Suzanne’s trip to Hungary is an absolute betrayal of her mother—a betrayal she absolutely must make.
Gut-wrenching, An American Rhapsody is about the tragedy of life.