Director: Miklós Jancsó
Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó
Starring: Mari Töröcsik, József Madaras, Zoltán Latinovits, Andrea Drahota, András Kozák
Running Time: 77 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Miklós Jancsó is a director who has been on my radar ever since his inclusion in Mark Cousins’ staggeringly expansive documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey. His use of long shots was mentioned there, which interested me and his films enjoy great critical acclaim, if not much exposure these days. Attempting to rectify this in the UK, Second Run have been steadily releasing his extensive back catalogue on DVD and more recently Blu-Ray with Electra, My Love in 2016 and now Silence and Cry (a.k.a. Csend és kiáltás). The latter is often considered the final chapter of an unofficial trilogy directed by Jancsó, which began with The Round-Up and The Red and the White. There aren’t any characters or narratives linking the films, they’re not even set in the same time period. However, they all deal with oppression and resistance so are often discussed together within the director’s oeuvre.
In terms of actual plot within Silence and Cry, it’s rather sparse. Very little exposition or scene setting is presented, other than some still photos which open the film, showing Admiral Miklós Horthy’s assumption of power in Hungary in 1919. This isn’t even really explained. You need to recognise him yourself and know what significance he has to Hungarian history. I didn’t on either count, unfortunately, but luckily Tony Rayns’ excellent essay on the film, included in this new release, helped fill in the gaps.
After the opening still image montage, we focus our attention on a farmstead where a Red fugitive István (Jancsó regular András Kozák) is hiding out, aided by the farm owner Károly (József Madaras) and his wife Teréz (Mari Töröcsik). White soldiers have a stranglehold on the community and force Károly, as one of the few remaining men in the village, to follow strict, unnecessary procedures each day. Local White captain Kémeri (Zoltán Latinovits) choses not to execute Károly and turns a blind eye to the blatant attempts to hide István partly due to an old connection with the latter and also due to the fact that Teréz helps provide sexual gratification to him and his troops through offering herself and other local women to them. István, though refusing to follow Kémeri’s orders, stays largely quiet and doesn’t face his enemies. When he learns a dark truth about Teréz and Kémeri however, he has a change of heart.
I found myself quite torn over my feelings for this film. On one side I was greatly impressed by what I saw. Critics are right to applaud Jancsó’s use of long takes. He doesn’t attempt to break any records with how long he holds his shots, but he rarely cuts within a scene and what is special about his master shots is how beautifully devised they are. His camera restlessly drifts about each scene smoothly and gracefully, which in itself is quite a feat in those pre-steadicam times. The choreography of the actors within the shots and creation of depth using them and his backgrounds is truly a sight to behold.
As impressive as I found the visual style however, I found the film a bit of a struggle to warm to. It follows the stereotypical idea of ‘arthouse’ cinema where actors are stony-faced, humour is non-existent and the narrative is slight yet difficult to follow, as the director refuses to throw the audience a bone. I found reading the enclosed essay I mentioned earlier a necessity to appreciating the significance and character motivation behind the finale in particular. Thankfully the running time is short, so it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
I felt like I needed more knowledge of Hungarian history to get the most out of the film, although, as Rayns points out, it doesn’t actually play out as an allegory of a particular moment in history, so its meaning can be interpreted in numerous ways. On a basic level though, the film works as a study of oppression. Indeed, most of the film consists of scenes of our protagonists being mentally beaten down by the soldiers they must bow down to. As such, the film can be quite gruelling and its cold approach only makes it more disturbing.
So, although I didn’t quite understand all of what I was watching until doing a little research afterwards, and I found much of it a little too ‘arty’ and cold for its own good, the film still remains a chilling examination of oppression and resistance that’s strikingly presented in intricate long takes. As a masterclass in directing and mis-en-scene it’s most impressive, but it’s a tough watch.
Silence and Cry is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Second Run. The transfer is reasonable – a bit soft and suffering from digital grain issues at times, but pretty decent.
As added features you get the world premiere home video presentation of Miklós Jancsó’s three renowned but rarely seen Jelenlét series of short films (1965-86). You also get a booklet featuring a new essay on the film by critic and film historian Tony Rayns, which I found greatly helped me better appreciate the film and fully understand some of the more unusual aspects of it.