Cinephile's Notebook: Miklós Jancsó 

All three films I’ve seen by the Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó (subject of a retro within Walter Reade’s upcoming Hungarian film series) begin in long shot, with horses galloping in the distance. It’s a fitting opener for a politically engaged director, which Jancsó certainly is, but while most filmmakers would be drawn to the shot’s dynamism — a sense of anticipation building with the clamor of the hooves, climaxing in a visceral demonstration of the power of the dominant social order — Jancsó keeps them at a remove, almost spectral figures on the expansive Hungarian plain. The Round-Up and The Red and the White dramatize revolutionary episodes from Hungarian history abstractly, with narratives providing no clear figures of identification not just from sequence to sequence but — due to Jancsó’s long-take style, his frame sliding three-dimensionally through elaborately blocked set pieces — within a single shot. Unsurprising, given the unfocalized nature of his narratives, is their detachment, the horrors of war dramatized without inflection (the desolation is augmented by the obviously canned sound effects that stand in for gunfire and physical beatings). With his incantatory takes and the recurrent image of men and women marshaled into marching order, often stripped naked, Jancsó’s vision of historical power dynamics is distinctly ritualistic. Round-Up takes place in the 1860s, amid Austrian efforts to quell a Hungarian peasant rebellion; The Red and the White is about the involvement of Hungarian communists during the 1919 clashes between Bolshevik and tsarist troops. Of the two, the former’s prison setting and depiction of authoritarian interrogation tactics is the more overtly political; the latter is the purer formal exercise.

But Electra, My Love, made nearly a decade later in 1974, tops ’em both for direct-address didactics and stylistic exceptionalism. Based on László Gyurkó’s play, which reimagines the Greek myth as an allegory for life under totalitarianism, the 70-minute film is set entirely in a field around the frame of a barn and composed of twelve takes, allowing for the continuous choreography of an experimental theater piece, albeit with a perspective moving within the action, manipulating on- and off-screen space. The symbolic flourishes — a naked man feeding pigeons, among too much Hair-style imagery to list — are of a piece with the balletic rendering of action and proclaimed dialogue; it’s completely airborne, but there’s no denying the left-field Marxist potency of the last, long shot: the phoenix, perpetually renewing spirit of rebellion, represented as a bright red helicopter circling above the dancing peasants, a modern-day deus ex machina dispensing not absolutes but leaflets.

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