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Grand 'Bank Ban' is positively operatic

A Hungarian legend is stirring in its translation to the screen.

November 15, 2002|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Bank Ban," regarded as the most important musical drama of Hungary's national cultural heritage, has at last reached the screen in all its grandeur in a textbook example of how to turn an opera into a film in a manner in which the two art forms complement instead of canceling out each other.

To accomplish this, Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was lured back to his homeland, which he fled in 1956 during the Hungarian uprising, to shoot his first feature ever in Hungary. Zsigmond teamed with first-time director Csaba Kael and screenwriter Gabor Meszoly, who adapted Jozsef Katona's play, which in turn inspired the 1852 Ferenc Erkel opera with its libretto by Beni Egressy. "Bank Ban" the opera has never before been filmed, but Katona's play was filmed in 1914 by Mihaly Kertesz, who in 1926 became Warner Bros.' legendary Michael Curtiz, director of "Casablanca" and other Hollywood classics.

So much for the heavy-on-the-accents pedigree of the opera, based on 13th century legend. With actual early Gothic castles and unspoiled countryside as its settings, the filmmakers respect the solemn majesty of the opera, but Zsigmond, shooting in muted color, brings to it a remarkable fluidity and cinematic grace. The filmmakers furthermore take the opportunity, in the opera's move from stage to screen, to reveal considerable psychological complexity in the characters.

The word "ban," a long-ago discarded term designating noble rank, in this instance refers to the status of Bank (Atilla Kiss B.) as viceroy of Hungary. It is 1213, and Endre II (Kolos Kovats) is off fighting foreign wars, leaving his beloved Queen Gertrud (Eva Marton, who possesses a shrewd and commanding presence). Gertrud is Meranian rather than Magyar and wastes no time in moving her countrymen into positions of power.

While off traveling through the countryside to ascertain the condition and needs of the people, Bank has left his beautiful, adored young wife Melinda (Andrea Rost) in the care of the court as a lady-in-waiting to the queen. As Bank is discovering widespread famine and oppression, the honorable and faithful Melinda is finding herself at the mercy of Gertrud's younger brother, Prince Otto of Meran (Denes Gulyas). His passionate pursuit of Melinda is encouraged by Gertrud, who also pressures Melinda to submit to her brother's advances.

The filmmakers respect the heady 19th century melodrama inherent in the material yet enrich it in revealing the conflict in Otto between love and lust. Similarly, Bank himself is conflicted as a man who takes honor and duty seriously and thus is slow to believe the worst about Gertrud.

It would take an opera expert to judge the merits of "Bank Ban" and its renowned singers. But to the layman Erkel's music soars, and the singers' voices sound glorious. Erkel's emotion-charged music has been compared to that of middle-period Verdi, and "Bank Ban" is an altogether stirring experience in an inspired meld of the visual and the aural.

Erkel and Egressy wrote the opera at a time when Hungary was under the domination of the Hapsburgs, and given the country's turbulent history, it is clear why "Bank Ban," as a fervent protest of foreign occupation and an equally impassioned expression of national pride, resonates so strongly with the Hungarian people to this day.

Coincidentally, "Bank Ban" became the subject of heated parliamentary debate last year as one of a series of state-supported productions intended to celebrate Hungarian history and culture at a time when so many Hungarian filmmakers, in the post-Communist era, are struggling to survive. While it is highly unlikely that "Bank Ban" will reach a wide audience in the U.S., it certainly looks as if every cent of the film's reported $2.6-million budget is on the screen.


'Bank Ban'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Mature themes, some violence

Atilla Kiss B....Bank Ban, viceroy of Hungary

Andrea Rost...Melinda, his wife

Eva Marton...Queen Gertrud

Denes Gulyas...Otto, prince of Meran, her brother

Kolos Kovats...Endre II, king of Hungary

A Bunyi Entertainment release of an Ezusthajo Produkcio Film Kft. Director

Csaba Kael. Producer Andras Wermer. Screenplay Gabor Meszoly; based on the play by Joszef Katona. Music Ferenc Erkel. Libretto Beni Egressy. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editor Thomas Ernst. Costumes Rita Velich. In Hungarian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

Exclusively at the Monica 4-Plex through Thursday, 1323 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.

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