Love (Szerelem) Karoly Makk (1971) Second Run Blu Ray.
Love adapts and merges two short stories Love (1956) and Two Woman (1962) written by the famous Hungarian writer Tibor Dery. It is set in 1953 during the Stalinist period in Hungary and explores two forms of love. A love of a woman for her bed ridden mother-in-law and the love of that same woman for her unjustly imprisoned husband. The mother love involves deception, hiding the fact that the son is in jail. The wife’s love for her husband reveals her anxiety and then relief when he is set free.
The mother-in-law (Lili Darvas) is cultured. She reads Goethe in German, loves the music of Bach and constantly asks about her professor friend. We are never sure if the professor is still alive. Yet when mother despairs Lucia (Maria Torocsik) says that the professor has said that she will live to be one hundred.
Lucia also keeps her cheerful by producing airmail letters which tell of the son’s great success as a film director in America: these lies are maybe written by Lucia or her husband Janos (Ivan Darvas). As mother reads the letters she sees again her youth (The Hungarian La Belle Epoque) and a 1920’s New York. These images are depicted so as to appear enigmatic, nostalgic and dreamlike. The fanciful opulence of the past, real or imaginary, ironically screens out the brutal communist present.
The women’s stories narrative ends in the mother’s death from pneumonia (not shown in the film). This is structurally daring. We go from a hidden death to a new life story with the appearance of Jonas. And Karoly Makk achieves great poignancy with his precise, often fragmentary editing combining subjective points of view with organised shots of rain on the streets, how people sit on a tram, an apple peeled for lunch etc: all building up a social observation married to an abstraction of reality, both totalitarian and yet inviolably personal, carefully shaped to be thoughtful, continually reflective and critical.
Janos Toth’s superb luminous photography and Andras Mihaly’s music aids in sustaining the sensitive tone of Makk’s direction. Love’s assured emotional intimacy and acute depiction of a terrible political reality sometimes reminded me of the fluid time and space in Resnais’s Muriel (1963), though Love is strongly lyrical without that great film’s determined puzzlement.
The supreme tenderness of Love is most apparent in the film’s final twenty minutes. Jonas’s release from prison, his taxi journey home; the waiting for his wife to return form work; his discovery of his dead mother’s glasses and letters and Jonas sitting dazed and unsure desiring to embrace his wife again: all is beautifully filmed with perfectly timed shots in a film where not a single image is extraneous.
This understated reunion contains sparse dialogue, natural sounds of falling rain, traffic noise and a single instance of a few notes of music to accompany the rhythm of the disturbed husband’s return. All inevitably comes together in a moving film now lifted into greatness.
The film’s generosity of impulse to affirm, remember and renew requited love is brilliantly acted by all concerned. Love (Szerelem) is regarded as one of the great films of Hungarian cinema. A claim I wouldn’t dispute at all.
Alan Price © 2022.