Near the start of István Szabó's Sunshine, Emmanuelle (David de Keyser), wise patriarch of the Sonnenschein family, spells out the central tenets of Jewish-Hungarian wisdom to his rebellious son, Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes): "Knowledge, interpretation and family love". Ignatz, however, decides to ride along smoothly with the prevailing climate of the incoming twentieth-century by changing his surname to Sors.
Nothing goes terribly well for Ignatz or his progeny from this moment onwards. Sunshine places a dozen interpersonal crises of love, marriage and betrayal in lockstep with the ever-changing traumas of Hungarian history: from the time of the Empire to Nazism, then Communism and its aftermath. At each changing of the guard, individuals find themselves punished for their prior beliefs and actions.
Szabó brings a world-weary, self-lacerating sense of gender difference to this sweeping, partly autobiographical chronicle. The men tend to be shifty, repressed, fixated, easily deluded by ideological fanaticism; while the women are free spirits who follow their hearts, suspect all doctrine and preach the wisdom of being able to "breathe easily" in the world.
This static division of the sexes is made all the more rigid by the casting of Fiennes – in his steely, neurotic and rather charmless Oscar and Lucinda (1997) mode – as three virtually indistinguishable members of the Sonnenschein family in three successive generations. Every time Fiennes pops up reborn, the film gears up for another, entropic recurrence of the same masculine malaise.
Like Andrzej Wajda (Danton, 1982), Szabó has become an academic filmmaker in the worst sense. The youthful, New Wave ardour of his '60s beginnings well behind him, he puts complete faith in a particularly uninspired form of classicism. As long as the sets are handsomely built, the shots are well balanced and the actors are impeccably clothed and in character, Szabó seems perfectly pleased with the results.
There are some poignant moments in the film, and touching, sharp performances from Rosemary Harris, William Hurt and Deborah Kara Unger. But Szabó neglects to bring out the poetry or irony of this tale by using appropriate motifs, repetitions and comparisons – the sort of cinematic and narrative language that Víctor Erice (The South, 1983) sculpts so brilliantly in his chronicles of personal and political life in Spain.
Szabó clearly wants the story – and history itself – to shine through without excessive artistry on his part. But his bland way of constructing the film has a terribly deadening effect. Sunshine is an occasionally moving and sombre tribute to a rather horrific century, but this material demands a more vigorous approach, of the kind that Emir Kusturica used to pay ambivalent homage to his Yugoslav legacy in Underground (1995).
MORE Szabó: Mephisto
© Adrian Martin December 2000