Love (Szerelem) Review
Based on two short stories by Hungarian author Tobor Déry, Love explores how individuals survive in the face of adversity and the absence of a loved one. We are first introduced to a frail old nonagenarian (Lili Darvas) whose ill-health has confined her to her bed. Her mind remains incredibly lucid and she spends her days remembering the past, brilliantly filmed as rapid shots of film rushes. Her accomplice in this remembrance is her daughter-in-law Luca (Mari Törõcsik), who visits her as often as she can. The absent husband/son, János, is often a feature of their conversations as the old lady receives effusive letters from him in America, recounting his trials and tribulations as a big shot film director. However, behind the letters lies a far more troubling reality.
Written on the back of the 1956 uprisings, the story told by Love was obviously political dynamite but given Hungary's relatively independent staus within the Warsaw pact ("the happiest barrack in the Eastern Bloc"), the stories were published with no reprisals against the author. Although there had been a few amnesties in the meanwhile, the 70s was an era when cinema of this sort was still seen by the censors as far too overtly critical to be approved. Thirty years later, it is still quite a testament to the openness of the Hungarian censors that Love ever saw the light of day albeit after Károly Makk harassed them for permission for over half a decade. The turning point, according to Makk, came when the wives of the censors turned against them, accusing them of being hypocrites as many of them had been locked up in 56 - after five years of constant fight, Makk was able to make his film and what a film it turned out to be...
Although Makk is not a sentimental director, he has a good eye for economy which in turn enhances the underlying emotions. Nothing here is forced nor overplayed - frequently, there are obvious paths that open for a factice heartstring tug but he's just not interested in taking them when the path less travelled is likely to be far more rewarding. The cinematography and the editing are quite singular - they approach a state of almost still life photography but with some very rapid editing offering the viewer further insight into the character's thoughts. Ozu's use of transitional shots seem to be echoed in Makk's use of lingering shots of nature to link scenes together - though those shots are unrelated to the scenes, they are effective in establishing the mood of the upcoming scene and highly symbolic on closer inspection. Of course, mastering the image so fully would be a nice but vacuous experience were the script and the acting not up to the same standard. Thankfully, they are - the two main actresses manage to provide a realistic relationship that perfectly parallels the real life tensions of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law as well as the ambiguity of their love for the same person. Even when the film shifts in focus, Makk doesn't let this change put a spanner in the works and keeps the whole proceedings tightly under control... Combining lyricism, philosophy and politics is not an easy feat but one can't really ask for a more perfectly rounded effort than Love...
Given the film's age, the quality of the image is pretty good. The print that has been sourced does have some damage (reel marks, one occurrence of a "tramline" and occasional dirt) but these don't distract from what's happening on screen. The natural grain is visible but the image is quite sharp despite this.
The sound and subtitles:
The film seems to have been redubbed after filming by the actors (probably due to a low quality recording from the filming mikes) and this is quite noticeable in some scenes. The sound seems too pure for a soundstage and the lip-synch isn't perfect due to this. Still that is part of the production's own limitations and the mono presentation sounds perfectly fine with no dropouts or audible damage to the track.
The subtitles are removable and are problem free - my Hungarian is non-existent so I can't comment on the translation but it seemed to make sense to me at least!
Beyond the original trailer (which may spoil some parts of the film for certain viewers), we get an excellent 20 minute long interview with Makk in his house as he sips away at some white wine. He mostly talks about his reasons for making Love as well as his casting efforts and his difficulties with the censors. He pretty much covers all I wanted to know about the film so it's a good tie-in with the film though it does contain spoilers so watch it after having watched the film.
Without wanting to become a sycophant for Second Run, it seems difficult to commend their efforts highly enough - they are releasing films that are seldom seen in the UK with a good image and sound, and go to the effort of producing extras when possible and all of this for a price of around £10 from most retailers. What more can a film fan want?