Friday, 16 December 2016

Szindbád (1971)


Director: Zoltán Huszárik
Screenplay: Zoltán Huszárik and János Tóth
Cast: Zoltán Latinovits (as Szindbád); Margit Dajka (as Majmunka); Éva Ruttkai (as Lenke)

Synopsis: As he dies alone, dragged along in a cart across the countryside door to door, Szindbád (Zoltán Latinovits) a libertine upper class womaniser, and his life are presented as a kileidoscope of memories which skip back and forth in time, all the women he's ever loved, the ingulgences he has partaken in, and all the ennui and dissapointment he has felt with the modern world of turn-of-the-century Hungary.

Szindbád begins like a Stan Brakhage short, a series of images of plant life and nature in extreme close-up which prepares a viewer not for a conventional narrative but a work entirely structured around sensation. In Szindbád, as one Criticker user by the name of Lepra perfectly summed up, you get Marcel Proust on film, where objects and motifs trigger new memories of old events for the protagonist, bleeding into each other and disrupting conventions of how time is usually depicted in cinema. Events early in Szindbád's life meld with those from the future, with only the grey in his hair to visually differentiate events, the viewer as unstuck in time as he is throughout the ninety minutes  running time.


Based on short stories by Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy, the film emphasises the importance of all five senses to fully appreciate it's tone. Szindbád, an utter womanising cad who is yet also compelling to follow because of Latinovits' performance as him, lives in a fully fleshed out world, one that is not so in terms of content only but also the tangibility of it. Rarely do films actually go further in adding tactility to their worlds but here it's a vital part of Szindbád's life in terms of his experiences being played in front of the viewer.  The interchanging of the natural world, from spring to summer, against the man made world in all its sights and sounds. The fashions and decor of turn-of-the-20th century era Hungary. Food depicted as more than mere nourishment but both visually stunning, close-ups turning it into alien shapes and colours, but also in a prolonged dining scene between Szindbád and a waiter an intrinsic part of human behaviour in how it is consumed and how people interact around eating, even the choice of mustard used for flavour painting details on the protagonist and others. Rather than a clear narrative trajectory to guide one, or the ghastly nature of biopic where events in a character's life from birth to death follow clearly signposted event markings, its instead a series of little intricacies which become the centrepieces for the protagonist and how we learn more about him, the type of details usually ironed out as insignificant in many others films but widen perspective of Szindbád the figure here.


Because of this Szindbád builds a protagonist with greater depth but also with significance for everyone surrounding him even if they have a single scene, brief apparitions who still have a greater importance in their details and effect on Szindbád's life. Highly sensual, whilst it has countless moments from the perspective of Szindbád fetishing women, in gowns and dresses, in states of undress usually placed against nature, like a nude woman rolling in snow in a constantly reoccurring memory, it like Proust's In Search of Lost Time emphasises has even a figure only seen once has a pronounced effect on Szindbád's entire view of reality. These women's visages and words literally embedded in the memories depicted on the celluloid, becoming more than more idolised figurines. The wife of a chemist, older, contrasted against a youthful self who wore old hats, cut against each other in the editing. The flower girl who jumps off her window in a top floor apartment. The matriarcal figure of Majmunka (Dajka) who Szindbád is constantly with and has befriended, reading his diary and as much contributing to his reflections as the one solid foundation of happiness in his life. The old women who help him when, as ill health and possible mortality leans ahead, Szindbád struggles between religious salvation and his disdain for modernity.


An utter bastard at times, even bribing a familiar friend at one point to go to confession at a church with his sins, Szindbád the character in nonetheless behind this all a compelling figure. Without chronology dictating where the moral compass should be, a viewer is left instead with a much more complex as a real human being is. Like how one is constantly at odds with the protagonist of Proust's monolithic tome, (at least for myself), as much as sympathetic for them, the protagonist here is the same. Stripping away any crass chauvinism of the type found in a lot of these sixties and seventies films, period or not, about decadent men who wooed women, instead you have a figure who's as much a loner who has lost his glory days, sulking around, as you have a man of possible virtue when he's able to actually think of others or muse about the world. Knowing that its explicitly based on the author's own life, thus leading a sense of self criticism of himself with the sharpness of a scalpel, the director/co-writer Huszárik is able to translate a figure who's more than just a Casanova stereotype.


Technical Detail:
Hungarian in origin, Szindbád takes a page however from its cousin films from the former Czechoslovakia. Extensive editing and densely constructed montages of images are used that, like Stan Brakhage, force one to re-judge the visual textures of the world, where a kitchen preparing food is turned into an alien one and, in the case of oil floating on top of soup, into even cosmic qualities like a coffee was in Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967).  One is forced to linger on the textures and sensations of said texture, even if scent and taste have to be improvised from the visual images only, with great emphasis unlike many other films on the notion of space and sensation, something absolutely vital for a film like this entirely about little details like the decor of a nightclub or the various delicacies that ultimately help, alongside too much wine and womanising, to Szindbád's death by (likely) cardiac arrest and also providing the paints to compose a picture of him for us as viewers.


Abstract Spectrum: Abstract/Avant-Garde/Expressionist
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High
Because of a lot of cinema ignores depth to the visual and sensual image in favour of surface gloss, without being forced to for a lack of a better term to open one's eyes wide and take in detail with them, a film like Szindbád which emphasises the small interactions of life right down to the clothes is far more of a visually stimulating work and also absolutely startling to tackle at first when one is used to images being edited together rapidly without time to absorb them. Strangely, despite the fact that in real life outside a cinema one is constantly aware and engaging with one's environment in the exact same way, this is rarely transported to cinema, a literalisation of the notion of cinema as escape which however means that, when it is transported, it leads to alienation for those not willing to adapt to it, and going beyond being glossy numbness of many mainstream films to a full aesthetic palette for those viewers willing to adapt to it. This is not merely to make the film look gorgeous only, which is absolutely is anyway, but also to present a tangibility, pronounced and rewarding in a great deal of Eastern European cinema of the time but pronounced here, which creates a fully formed world onscreen with every object having touch to it and evoking additional emotions alongside the main emotional drive as a result. Aptly, a film of memories swirling and intersecting together at once, creating what is felt as an actual period between life and death, where the tactility of its content further enforces the Proustian context of each little detail evoking whole periods of life for Szindbád. The result is overwhelming but completely in context of full tangibility.


Personal Opinion
Even amongst the heavy weights that came from Eastern European cinema at this point between the sixties and seventies, as experimental and bold as you could find in the medium in spite of the dangers of censorship in communist Europe, Szindbád is a bold entity in itself, a one-off rightly acclaimed for a director in Zoltán Huszárik who tragically was not able to venture forth further into feature length films, baring one other work after, before his death. It took years of reflection, first unable to gauge with it fully, but now upon greeting each other, apt for this film's content, it evokes a great deal of warmth and reflection for me. 

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