Hol volt, hol nem volt—literally, It Happened, It Didn’t Happen, but bluntly, misleadingly called A Hungarian Fairy Tale in the U.S.—proceeds ambiguously: the viewer often cannot tell what events are objectively real or some character’s imagining, and oftentimes a follow-up scene that appears to resolve the matter actually extends the ambiguity. Gyula Gazdag and Miklós Györffy have craftily written, and Gazdag has finely, intriguingly directed, a black-and-white film a major theme of which is precisely the necessity for this ambiguity in a police state, where the two lead characters separately attempt to elude authorities that “routinely” check identity cards and breathe down their necks. The filmmakers have opted for a quirky, funny, semi-fantastical parable that is, at the level of subversive political intent, no laughing matter. Gazdag won the best film prizes at both Salerno and Sitges.
Andris (Dávid Vermes, sometimes credited as Arpad Vermes—best acting, Locarno) is a Budapest schoolboy whose mother doesn’t recall having had sex with the one candidate for paternity on that single occasion of their meeting after separately attending a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute; Antal Orbán (Czech actor František Husák, marvelous), the bureaucratic clerk who informs Andris’s mother that at the age of three—I have no idea whether this procedure existed in reality—each illegitimate child must have the name of a father recorded on his or her birth certificate. The name needs to be made up; Andris’s mother, humorously, decides on Antal’s family name, to which Antal adds a fictitious address—on “Freedom Street” in Ujhely—and a fictitious occupation: bricklayer. Ujhely is the Yiddish shortening of Satoraljaujhely, whose substantial Jewish community goes back centuries and was decimated in the Holocaust. When playful pigeons, loosening an upper ledge brick, orphan Andris by killing his mother as she walks down a street, this “bricklayer’s son” eludes authorities that seek to plant him in an orphanage and heads for Ujhely to find his father. Meanwhile, Antal abandons his job, burns a mound of falsified records and, an outcast himself now, also heads for Ujhely after escaping the authorities that have jailed him for vagrancy and public drunkenness. Antal is haunted by the wrong in which he has routinely participated. Eventually he comes together with the boy who bears his name and the boy’s surrogate mother, a nurse who has unofficially adopted Andris.
Andris is often pictured in oppressively restricted space or voluminous darkness; one indoor nighttime shot finds him wrapped up in shadow as the full moon, through the window, alone illuminates his face (a suggestion of his lost mother?). In one of the film’s two “killer” passages, he is impressed into an outdoor school training him, and countless other children waiting their turn in line, to shoot a firearm: a terrifying passage that seems to owe something to Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . . (1968). The finale is the other great passage: a staggering freedom-flight on the wings of a gigantic national bird: a lofty sculpture-turned-real. Emotionally, it feels like the imaginative and symbolical overturning of the outcome of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which the Soviet military crushed.
Not all the film is this good; but when it periodically takes off, Gazdag’s film soars.
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