Lens on history

Hungarian director’s mysterious journey through early 20th century Europe

Opens Friday, May 24. Starring Juli Jakab. Directed by László Nemes. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Budapest, 1913. Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a well-dressed young woman, is trying on hats in a posh millinery shop. Somewhat belatedly, she mentions that she’s come to apply for a job and, later still, that she’s the daughter of the prestigious store’s now-deceased founders. Her arrival is greeted with several varieties of alarm, amazement, sober concern and half-crazed mystery. The store’s current owner refuses to hire her, but he and several other folks she encounters try variously to keep her around, send her away, protect her, misguide her, etc.

That’s just the first 15 minutes or so of this long (nearly 2 1/2 hours) and remarkable Hungarian film. And while all that may sound like the setup for a quasi-Dickensian melodrama and period piece, it also turns out to be the entryway into what seems to be both a nightmarish journey into early 20th century (and pre-World War I) Europe and a wildly expanding set of mysteries about Írisz’s family history and Írisz herself.

Those mysteries get no complete and final resolution in Sunset, but that frustration of conventional narrative expectations is pretty much inseparable from the richly atmospheric fascination that prevails amid the film’s mysteries and ambiguities. As in his Oscar-winning Son of Saul (2015), filmmaker László Nemes builds much of this film’s dramatic power via lengthy camera movements featuring closeup views of the central character as she moves through moments of socio-political upheaval and turmoil. The historical moment in this case is the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Írisz is its witness—and our perhaps unwitting (but also deeply embedded) guide.

Maybe the real guide here, however, is the camera and those mercurial blends of closeups and tracking shots. We follow Írisz through moments of several kinds of history, but with Nemes’ methodology it’s always history caught on the fly, in bits and pieces, before it’s been categorized, summarized, or “fully understood.” In a way, Nemes is a sort of reverse documentarian, bringing a cinéma vérité kind of immediacy to the spectacle of historical drama.

Írisz, on the other hand, is also a figure out of fiction, poetry and myth. Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély let us see her as an innocent unprotected and as a shadowy “dark lady” and assorted archetypes in between. As a quietly relentless explorer of the male-centered power structures in the home town from which she has been absent since age 2, she might well be the protagonist in a stylized adventure fantasy. In visiting hazy streets and dark corridors where shadowy strangers greet (or accost) her as if they recognized her from some other time or place, she looks as if she might be entering little worlds of ghosts and avatars.