The Oscars™ are not always the most reliable barometer of cinematic greatness. Let us remember the year that KRAMER VS. KRAMER beat out APOCALYPSE NOW. This year’s oversights were less egregious, and I am delighted that A FANTASTIC WOMAN won the Best Foreign Language prize. I am still miffed, though, that 1945 wasn’t even nominated in that category. This extraordinary Hungarian film by Ferenc Török focuses on a little-recounted part of post-World War II history, and for this reason, is worthy viewing over and above its impeccable filmmaking.
At the end of World War II, a small, Soviet-occupied village in Hungary is about to celebrate a wedding in as high as style as its straightened circumstances allow. As with the larger world around them, there are issues. The groom is delighted, but the bride is still recovering from a broken romance with the town Lothario, which is causing friction with her new in-laws. Things are about to get much worse. Early that morning, a train deposited two strangers and their large crate in their midst. The strangers, one old, one young, are Jews. Their reason for being there is a mystery about which no one wants to ask them as the make their way across the village speaking to no one, not even each other.
The silent strangers slowly tear the town apart as speculation runs rampant about why they are there. It’s speculation made all the more toxic as the village’s anxiety is slowly revealed to the audience to be the guilt they collectively feel for not just standing by as their Jews were deported to concentration camps by the Nazis, but for being more actively complicit. The groom’s father, for example, didn’t become a semi-prosperous shopkeeper through hard work, but rather by commandeering it after its Jewish owner and his family were arrested. The secrets and betrayals left unspoken are suddenly made manifest by these two solemn and dignified men, sparking increasing levels of tension and violence among the villagers.
Török’s use of black-and-white cinematography becomes a potent metaphor for good and evil with no shading in between. That the current Soviet occupiers are abusing the villagers with impunity lends a poetic justice to what is happening as the villagers watch the strangers through half-closed shutters and from around corners, muttering to themselves and each other about what this arrival means. This is a film that is wrenching to watch, but totally engrossing as tempers flare, suspense builds, as the series of seemingly small, meticulously observed, vignettes of village life unfold over the course of one pivotal day.