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Károly Ujj Mészáros
Szabolcs Bede Fazekas,
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The Nazis have invaded Hungary and war is raging in the main cities. To avoid it, a woman leaves her thirteen-year-old twin boys at their grandmother's place in the countryside. The children don't know their grandmother, a dirty, miserly, and mean old woman who barely allows them inside the house. Left to their own devices, the two children learn to cope with hunger, the cold, and the everyday cruelty in a devastated country. To protect themselves, the twins reject all moral codes and values and instead take their lessons from the evil around them in order to try to survive. The siblings studiously note, as objectively as possible, their discoveries and their burgeoning knowledge in a notebook.Written by
An Intimate, Brutal Portrayal of Childhood During War
In one of the most remarkable scenes of 'The Notebook', twin 12 year old brothers methodically, coldly trade punches. Each swings at the other, and then stands still, face expressionless, as he receives a slew of punches back. Gradually the punches are harder, and eventually they start using belts to ratchet up then pain threshold. They are children but this is no game: they are toughening up, physically and psychologically, to survive the war. They have realized that cuddling together and wishing the war away will not save them, and they better be prepared for hunger, pain, betrayal and daily humiliations. And survive they do, although they decide that in order to do so they must blackmail priests, steal from corpses, bully their grandmother and plant explosives in someone's kitchen.
The director competently handles deep staging and the use of long lens, very apt for the emotional distance the story takes with regards to the acts it depicts. The film works in large part because of the performance of László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt, real life twins, who give a stupendously restrained, controlled performances, often consisting solely of intense stares and vengeful glances. Color is mostly bleached out, music is sparse and some of the best moments consist of static, unnervingly long shots.
The film is set in a small village straddling the Austro-Hungarian border during world war two. But it is not particularly interested in providing context of the war, or of Hungary's terrible plight in it, or in Nazism or in any other details of the historical setting. So don't expect to learn much about world war 2 in this film as it is merely the backdrop to a story that is really about survival and what happens to children's moral compass during war.
Hungarian films are their own sub-genre. Perhaps no other country has produced such consistently bleak films, soaked in pessimism and mostly focused on moral corruption and confusion. This small gem of a film is yet another example of this cinematic tradition. This is not quite at the level of masterpieces such as 'Come and See'or 'Time of the Drunken Horses', my two favorite films about childhood during wartime, but absolutely deserves to be seen, or, to be more precise, endured.
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