The leanest and meanest of Miklós Jancsó's visions of Hungarian history as formalist diagrams, and an entrapping mechanism to rival Fritz Lang's. The setting is the desolate countryside some time after Kossuth's 1848 rebellion against the oppressive Habsburg Austrian Empire, though Jancsó deliberately sidesteps the (short-lived) revolutionary heroics to focus on the fallout of reprisal of persecution, zeroing in on a detention camp for Hungarian prisoners. Bottled up inside is a brooding mass of farmers, civilians and rebels, and it's up to the Austrian overseers to tell them apart by injecting suspicion and fear into the group -- the rounding-up process gets precipitated by an old woman pointing out the man she believes killed her family, and the camera maps out the spreading via bluffs, double-buffs, betrayals, bogus promises of pardon, and overall contaminating paranoia. Implacably, horribly logical, the film's progression has the pared-down clarity of thesis work -- everything is ritualized (from the terrorizing of a Hungarian peasant to the lashing of a woman to the defrocking of an Austrian officer), yet everything is unadorned, ascetically terse. Jancsó's camera movements, ornate and abstracting in The Red and the White or Red Psalm, here are elaborate enough to the various trace shifts in relationships through space, but intimate enough to take in the battered, mustachioed grandeur of Hungarian faces. (János Görbe, the closest the film comes to a main character, could have stepped out of Battleship Potemkin, cinema's original collective-hero manifesto.) The suffocating spareness of black capes against windowless walls and military lines against the stretching, sun-baked puszta plains inevitably grinds on, although the purposeful numbness is its own fulfillment, all the better to shatter the atmosphere of oppression with spurts of revolt no less effective for being doomed. Screenplay by Gyula Hernádi. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce