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HUNGARIAN FILM FESTIVAL : THE NINCH THAT STOLE THE FILM FESTIVALS

March 10, 1985|SHEILA BENSON

(There was our young cabdriver who, late one evening when his wrist alarm went off, pulled the cab to one side of a narrow, snowbanked street, asked our permission, and took us into a theater to watch his young actress-wife rehearse for the political cabaret-satire. There is also the story of my three friends at Budapest's oldest synagogue, and the minyan, but no room for that here.)

In Berlin, which must be the most brilliantly glowing city short of Tokyo, there is politeness and correctness everywhere, but outside of some memorably seditious members on our jury, no discernible lightness anywhere except from our charming festival secretary. She, it turns out, is Swiss.

Not a word about the films? Many words about the films, many of them said at a--to us quite extraordinary--meeting with all the foreign press, the heads of the five film studios that operate under MAFILM (the Hungarian film distributing company) and many of the leading directors. By now, more than half the films have been seen, and the impression is not cheerful. There are exceptions: Laszlo Lugossy's burning "Flowers of Reverie," a historically set film drama whose message could not be more contemporary, as a sane dissident is locked away in an asylum. (It was to be Hungary's entry at Berlin, where it won the jury, or second, prize); Szabo's "Colonel Redl," an obvious foreign and Hungarian favorite; Gazdag's "The Package Tour," a wrenching documentary that follows a busload of Hungarian Auschwitz survivors on their first visit back to the camp, 40 years later, and the piquant and arresting first feature, "The Philadelphia Attraction" by Peter Gardoas, about a celebrated and retired circus performer and a tenacious young one. (Both "Flowers" and "Package Tour" will be part of a Hungarian film series at UCLA's Melnitz Hall April 2 at 7:30 p.m.) But by and large, the reaction is that this year's crop is "poor." One visitor goes so far as to declare "a crisis in Hungarian film."

One target is co-productions: There are six this year, and if the West German-Hungarian-Canadian "Yerma," or the lead-footed Soviet-Hungarian biography of Imre Kalman, "Music of a Lifetime," are any yardstick, the results are howlingly, almost collectibly bad. (At Christmastime in the United States, we have already seen what happened to Pal Gabor, director of the subtle and complex "Angi Vera," with an American co-production, "The Long Ride." This disastrous World War II action-suspense picture starred John Savage, aging 30 years, and featured Kelly Reno as a young Magyar horseman.) Since Hungarian critics had already rejected "Yerma," a pointed question is raised: How did it come to represent Hungary this year at the Academy Awards? "The prestige of the property, worldwide; the reputation of the directors, who had had success at the academy before with their nomination for 'The Revolt of Job,' and the insistence of the German co-producer," is the answer, hardly a flattering one in terms of the Hungarian film industry image worldwide.

But while the outspokenly negative comments seemed to take MAFILM heads aback, the surprise was the feeling that many of the country's film directors present shared the gloomy view of the visitors.

There were few explanations; the most pressing one given is a lack of funds, since there is no private financing to augment government funding, not reduced this year but straitened because of inflation. There is also the problem of dwindling audiences. Of its 10 million population, 7 million Hungarians go to films, but 6 million of those go regularly to foreign films. (Imported films number 180-200 each year, two-thirds from socialist countries, one third from "developing or capitalist countries.") Currently, Hungarian films hold very little attraction for Hungarian audiences. As a director explained to me, Hungary's moviegoers are now primarily the very young (under teen-age) or those over 65. The rest are working, and too tired at the end of their day to go out, even though movies are still very cheap. And now television is beginning to make its inroads on that segment.

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