From Hungary, István Szöts’s Emberek a havason adapts stories by József Nyirö about poor, uneducated folk living and working near and in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. “They do not go to church often,” the narrator tells us, “but when they do they listen to mass. . . . God loves these people.”
One family is an especial focus: Gergely Csuták, his wife, Anna, and their son, Gergo, named after his father. When the film opens, Gergo is an infant; at the close he is a toddler—and an orphan.
His parents early on introduce Gergo to the pristine beauties of Nature—water, trees and animals; these also are a part of their primitive, one might say primal, faith. No other film matches this one for expressing parental wishes for a child’s well-being. This movement is idyllic.
Landowners sell the mountains and trees to the factory run by the Arbor Company. With his eye on Anna, the supervisor hires Gergely as a woodcutter, enticing him with substantial pay, giving Gergely hope he can provide better for his son, and sends him on a wintertime work-related trip, during which time he tries to rape Anna, who, resisting, starts a fire that spreads and burns down the factory. Anna ends up gravely ill.
Gergely and Anna go on a pilgrimage to a shrine of the Virgin Mary at a monastery, where they will pray for the restoration of Anna’s health. Seeing how ill she is, a monk directs the couple to a doctor. “What about the miracle of the Virgin Mary?” Gergely asks him. The monk’s response: “We’ll pray for a miracle if science fails.” Now the couple must proceed to Kolozsvár to see a specialist, who explains it is too late to help Anna, who will die within hours. Anna’s dying wish is to be buried in Rákos; unable to afford an undertaker to transport his wife’s body, Gergely takes her onboard a train. Taking their tickets, the conductor observes the truth. In a sharp, beautifully moving point-of-view shot, the camera-as-conductor surveys other passengers in the car and, not wishing to raise unnecessary alarm, decides to be silent and let “the couple” go home.
After the burial, Gergely axes to death the supervisor and is sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Even a full explanation of the context, which one would think would exonerate Gergely of the “crime,” doesn’t faze the judge, who ridiculously, almost insanely asserts, “The law is the law.” (Shades of Javert!) One of Gergely’s neighbors counters this with simple truth: “The law is no good if it doesn’t bring justice to the innocent.” Gergo, now five, is consigned to an orphanage. Gergely is shot trying to escape. He had hoped to see his son one last time on Christmas, but his wound proves fatal. The friend hiding him claims the reward for his capture and buys little Gergo new boots and clothes with it.
Szöts took the Biennale Award at Venice for this powerful, humane film.
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