Thursday, March 24, 2011


Director: István Gaál
Country: Hungary
Runtime: 81

Also known as In the Current, this was the debut feature by the 30-year-old István Gaál, and has subsequently been recognised as one of the earliest films of an authentic Hungarian ‘new wave’. Gaál had spent two years (1959-61) studying film at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, and Current shows the clear influence both of Italian neo-realism and its more modernist offshoots. It’s probably safe to assume that Gaál would have seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), to which Current occasionally bears a strong resemblance in its depiction of a group of friends whose lives are permanently altered when one of them mysteriously disappears during a riverside excursion. The crucial difference here is that the various characters are much younger, some not yet out of their teens, and consequently forced to grow up faster than intended.

The film begins in sunny, upbeat fashion, with lithe and energetic young men and women leaving their small village to spend a day frolicking on the sands beside the river and picnicking in the woods. Six of them are old friends, with the seventh, Zoli (Zsofi’s new neighbour) fitting right in almost from the start. They’re a very familiar bunch, right down to the petty squabbles - though the latter will later be replayed and agonised over, as though they offered some kind of clue as to the meaning of what later happened. They even pose for a photograph, largely stripped to their underwear, a couple streaked with warpaint-like mud, an image of carefree innocence (albeit with ‘Lord of the Flies’ overtones) that will also be repeatedly shown in increasingly ironic circumstances. Gabi’s disappearance changes everything, including the film’s pace and tone. Finding his clothes still present on the shoreline, they run along the shoreline calling his name before doing the sensible thing and hand the matter over to the police - but that’s when the recriminations and internal soul-searching begin, which will dominate the rest of the film.
Coming from different backgrounds and with different interests suggesting divergent temperaments (when medical student Zoli is introduced to the rest of the group, we learn that it contains a student, a biologist, a physicist and a sculptor) each has their own individual reaction to Gabi’s disappearance. Zoli struggles to recall his face, Zsofi wonders whether they were truly in love, Laci asks his solipsistic parents what they’d have done if he’d drowned (and is given the less than helpful response “clever boys don’t do such stupid things”) and worries whether Gabi has left anything aside from fading memories, Luja finds solace in his art (he’s training to be a sculptor) and Böbe realises that she feels nothing for Kari, whose love for her is superficial compared with Gabi’s for Zsofi’s (though this is now, of course, an untestable proposition, and implicitly challenged by the memory of her slapping him on the beach).

All recognise that Gabi’s disappearance has changed them in some way, but they can’t articulate precisely what - one attempt at rationalising whether they have a moral responsibility for what happened because they were effectively a community is dismissed with a curt “this isn’t a maths problem”. Böbe claims that Gabi was effectively a ‘father confessor’ to all of them, and he seems to retain this role even in death, his memory triggering numerous revealing reminiscences (notably Zsofi’s monologue about an erotic but strangely chaste encounter with Gabi in an otherwise abandoned boathouse).

Weaving a much more definite path through all these questions and arguments is the figure of Gabi’s grandmother, largely silent (except for the keening song she sings at the funeral), shawled in black and clutching a symbolic loaf of bread and an unlit candle, at one point drifting down the fatal river in a boat as if to get as close as possible to her grandson’s spirit at the moment it left his body, after which she affixes the candle to the bread and lets it drift away. There’s a sense of ancient ritual coming into play here, something that the young people can’t begin to grasp.
Bookending the narrative elements and threading through them is the powerful symbolic device of the fast-flowing river, first seen in the opening credits accompanied by Vivaldi’s stately Concerto Grosso in D minor, as suggesting something largely impervious to the passage of time. Gaál and cinematographer Sándor Sára (swapping the roles they performed on their previous collaboration, the short documentary Gypsies/Cigányok, 1962) contrive some stunning images in which the river looms large. A standout example is a three-plane composition in which Zsofi comforts Luja on the bank in the left foreground, Gabi’s grandmother drifts past in her boat in the middle, with either the sun or the moon (given the use of silhouette, it’s hard to read the time of day) in the background on the right, or the shot of the sextet searching for Gabi alongside the river, filmed from inside the current itself, with the camera occasionally dipping below the surface. Gaál and Sára are just as inventive indoors: Laci’s bedroom, with its decorative rocks, cacti, hourglass and other objects, filmed in close-up so that they momentarily become a series of abstract studies in a way that anticipates the future work of assistant director Zoltán Huszárik (who would collaborate with Sára on the poetic masterpiece Sindbad/Szindbád in 1970).

The film has a very strong sense of place: the opening shots establish the small, close-knit village community, with haymakers and barges frequently glimpsed in the background - the police, too, perform their work unobtrusively and efficiently. The performances throughout ring entirely true, with much of the younger cast being drawn from a local acting school - though one of them, András Kozák, would soon become a familiar face in the work of Miklós Jancsó and other major Hungarian filmmakers of the 1960s.

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