CHILD MURDERS (Ildikó Szabó, 1993)

Twelve years old, Zsolt (Barnabás Tóth, wonderful) has lived in a tiny Budapest apartment with his elderly grandmother since his mother abandoned him. However, it is more the case that he takes care of her, getting her up in the morning, singing with her, bathing her. She is an alcoholic, and her grandson is an object of derision among his schoolmates. Ibi, who lives in the same apartment building, is cold in the extreme, taunting and bullying Zsolt daily; it is she who has given him the nickname Sodabottle because he wears glasses. How can a child be this way? Ibi has a mother who insists she always wear white dresses—mostly as a way of asserting her power over her daughter because, it is implied, she also is miserably unhappy with her lot in life. Thus Ibi “acts out” on Zsolt for the unhappiness that’s being inflicted upon her at home.
     Zsolt befriends a homeless, pregnant Gypsy girl. When Juli suffers a miscarriage and they dispose of the corpse in the Danube, Ibi tattles to the police, who incarcerate Juli as a baby killer; in prison Juli commits suicide. In a stunning shot Ibi herself goes into the Danube and drowns, the result of strength that the spirit of revenge has given the slight boy. Zsolt seems poised to lose what little he has when his grandmother becomes deathly ill.
     This is a strange, at times lyrical, and almost always oddly affecting black-and-white drama, with startling camera angles and bold images; several passages, including the opening one, are speechless—silent, that is, except for sounds. At the center of the film’s symbolism, as it is in many of the film’s images, is the Danube, which suggests the unconscious, the repository of everything that haunts soul-mates Zsolt and Juli. If at times the boy seems borderline sociopathic, there is a final shot that makes visible his tormented feeling. Or does it? Incarcerated now himself, and singing falsetto onstage (as he used to do when accompanying his grandmother in their apartment), Zsolt silently cries, perhaps inhabiting nothing more substantial than a dream. How ambiguous! Blighted children are unknowable, and Zsolt’s tears may only be for himself.
     Ildikó Szabó is the writer-director of Gyerekgyilkosságok. On the basis of this film, I want to see anything else she has done.

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One thought on “CHILD MURDERS (Ildikó Szabó, 1993)

  1. Thanks for your synopsis of this small but wonderful film. However, I’d like to share an observation about one of the narrative’s central events that you and other reviewers might have misread. Specifically, Ibi’s death. There is an impression (not based on explicit action) that Szolt is a murderer, having taken “violent action,” perhaps due to “some innate immorality.” The quotes are from Caryn James of the New York Times, who has, along with the adults depicted in Child Murders, fallen into something of a narrative trap.

    This is of course a film intended for adults, but it requires very careful consideration to reveal its secrets. If Zsolt is a murderer, as it superficially appears, would it not compromise the poignance of a parentless boy raised and assessed by the adult world? It is this world that ultimately defines Zsolt, in the manner of a film reviewer, and breaks him, as depicted in the devastating final scene. Szolt is best seen as a caregiver who yearns for family, in particular a father; a role played, tragically, by the investigator of Ibi’s death – which I believe to be suicide. Closely following the interplay of the boy and the taunting girl, who is under the influence of young love (not unlike the boy), one can see that the girl’s death is more likely a product of dejection than revenge. In a more baroque sense, the girl’s death is a form of murder, stemming from her cruelly effective impersonation of an adult, an impersonation, over a pay phone, designed to hurt the boy she loved but couldn’t have (you take this adult-sourced pain a step further with your observation that Ibi is transferring the sting of authority from her mother to Szolt). The death of the boy’s object of affection (who represents an ideal of mother and playmate), only emphasizes to the girl the terrible turns love can take for adults. When the girl learns of the gypsy’s suicide, a revelation not depicted but implied, it suggests the girl’s choice of taking her own life, as an expresson of isolation from both the banal familiar and the foreign beloved.

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