|review: Szabadság, szerelem (Children of Glory)|
|Written by Boyd van Hoeij|
|Wednesday, 07 February 2007|
Young director Krisztina Goda makes a splash with her tightly wound and breathtakingly solid Hungarian revolution drama Szabadság, szerelem (Children of Glory). Like Verhoeven’s recent Zwartboek (Black Book) it offers a thrilling ride through recent European history modelled on the Hollywood blockbuster but infused with a particular European sensitivity -- and in szerelem’s case a strong love story. Perhaps not coincidentally, this reconfiguration of events surrounding the 1956 revolution and two bloody Hungary-Russia water polo matches was partially scripted by Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter on Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. The film was the most visited local feature of 2006 at home and will find arthouse red carpets rolled out across the continent after its screening as a 2007 Berlinale Special.
The true events of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet occupation -- which gained traction after news of strikes in communist Poland -- and two contemporary water polo matches (the latter at the Melbourne Olympics) in which the Russian and the Hungarian national teams square off to bloody results were obviously real-life stories waiting to be turned into a film. It is surprising that it has taken filmmakers so long to finally use these historical events, though the film’s budget (reportedly over €10 million, about ten times the average budget for a Hungarian feature) might have something to do with it.
Like Zwartboek, Szabadság, szerelem's story is based real events but is far from a documentary. Instead, the historical events inspire a new story that blends real and fictional elements into a satisfying whole. The particular strength of Szabadság, szerelem is that it has a very strong love story at its heart: a love story between the star Hungarian water polo player and a student revolution leader but also a love story between a fatherland and its oppressed people.
The screenplay, based on a story by Joe Eszterhas and written by Éva Gárdos, Réka Divinyi, Géza Bereményi and Eszterhas, effortlessly switches between the historical events of the fermenting revolution and the Soviet retaliation in Budapest, the matches abroad between Hungary and Russia and the developing romance between the womanising star athlete Karcsi Szabó (Ivan Fenyö, displaying all the leading man qualities one could ask for) and the student revolutionary leader Viki Falk (Kata Dobó, likewise inspiring).
Karcsi and Viki fall in love almost straight away despite the fact (or perhaps because) they are polar opposites, but their romance is absolutely credible in the heat and fever of the ongoing revolution, which turns from a peaceful protest for a more hopeful feature into a veritable urban battlefield involving tanks, shoot-outs and artillery in which each moment may indeed turn out to be their last. What unites them is thus not a simple infatuation (Viki, a female Che Guevara, is certainly not the type for that) but a fear of losing all that they have and their will and daring to do something of importance for their fatherland. As such, it is one of the most solidly constructed war romances of recent memory.
Throughout the film, small supporting roles add spice and resonance to the main story, including a wonderful turn from Ildikó Bánsági as Karcsi’s mother, Tamás Jordán as his grandfather, Sándor Csányi as Karci’s best friend who would prefer to play water polo rather than fight the Russians and Péter Haumann as Uncle Fredi, who is part of the secret state police AVO.
For the breathtaking action sequences in which the Hungarian people defend every inch of every Budapest street against the almighty Soviet Army, the Hungarian-UK co-production benefited from the expertise of Vic Armstrong, the second unit director of films from the James Bond and Mission: Impossible series, credited here as the director of the "action sequences". Cinematography by Buda Gulyás and János Vecsernyés and production design by János Szabolcs are all blockbuster quality. Editing by Éva Gárdos never misses a beat.
The two historical water polo matches bookend the main action, reinforcing the idea that though politics often happen behind closed doors, revolutions are fought out in the streets -- or the Olympic pool -- eye to eye. Though there is not a Michael Bay-style explosion in sight, the finale is every bit as suspenseful and rousing and naturally provides the story with a happy ending even though the country still had decades of Soviet rule ahead. Just watch the flag that is hoisted at the end of the film, and the reactions of the athletes who brought a moment of glory to their nation in the midst of the cold war. Szabadság, szerelem (Children of Glory) is so well-made it turns all viewers into proud Hungarians during its closing moments.
This film was screened as part of the 2007 Magyar Filmszemle (2007 Hungarian Film Week).
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