Hungary, 2017Director: Márta Mészáros104 min.
Acclaimed, pioneering Hungarian director Márta Mészáros returns with the drama Aurora Borealis – Northern Light after eight years of silence. With the new film, Mészáros continues to develop themes that she has analyzed across her whole career, which spans half a century: denial of the past, search for roots and parents, and the consequences of the post-war Stalinist regime. As was the case with the director’s Diary Tetralogy (which includes Diary for My Children, Diary for My Lovers, Diary for My Father & Mother and Little Vilma: The Last Diary), Mészáros chronicles the period between the end of German occupation and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, and also its echoes in the present day.
Olga (Ildikó Tóth), a successful Viennese lawyer, rushes to Hungary after her octogenarian mother Mária (Mari Töröcsik) falls into a coma upon discovering a political rehabilitation letter from Moscow. Olga confesses to her son Róbert that his grandfather is not his biological one. Róbert (the director’s real-life grandson Jakob Ladanyi) insists on investigating, so when Mária miraculously regains consciousness, Olga makes her mother dive into unpleasant and dark memories, which include the loves of her life, death, rape, adoption, the Soviet regime and years of denial.
Aurora Borealis simultaneously unfolds in two timelines: a 1950’s Hungary under occupation by Soviet soldiers, and the modern day. The narrative is fragmented and often jumps between time and place chaotically. This surely serves the detective elements of the feature, but viewers are presented with many lines which do not really lead anywhere. Besides the main storyline, in which the daughter wants to find out about her own origin (and we don’t know exactly why she waited for her mother’s deathbed to start investigating), we witness Olga’s marriage and office problems, and the relationships between her, her son and his father (her ex-husband, perhaps), which seem quite underdeveloped and only distract from the main plot.
The film starts as an old lady’s very sentimental telling of the greatest love story of her life. The melodrama sometimes doesn’t work because of rapid mood changes (sliding from traumatic experiences right into joy), a few hammy lines and the implausible acting of the subsidiary characters. Those create unintentional humour and risk killing the whole drama.
Legendary Hungarian actress Mari Töröcsik is a strong reason not to miss the film – it’s a pleasure to watch her on the screen. Franciska Töröcsik (who played the main antagonist’s prisoner in the recent Hollywood horror hit Don’t Breathe) plays the younger version of the heroine and does a good job, showing passion, shame and bitter misery. Ildikó Tóth as Olga is a brilliant actress but seems to be miscast, as her heroine is supposed to be at least 15 years older than Tóth is.
Despite its flaws, beautifully shot Aurora Borealis is still an important film as it attempts to reckon with the negatives aspects of this historical period. This is never more so than now, when women who were raped are still systemically silenced on a daily basis, and Stalin’s regime and politics are being re-evaluated and perceived in a positive light in the dictator’s home country. It is simply a pity, that the melodramatic and sometimes even soap-operatic way this particular story is told might mostly attract only older generations, who actually do not seem to need another reminder, unlike younger ones.
Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, 2017Director: Denijal Hasanovic98 min.
Denijal Hasanović’s debut feature Catalina, screening in the 1-2 Competition at the 33rd Warsaw Film Festival, tells the story of an eponymous Colombian girl (Andrea Otalvaro), who after failing to extend her visa in France, moves to Sarajevo to work on a project related to the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal. She believes this study will help her get a job and legal residence at her university in Paris. In Bosnia and Herzegovina she meets interpreter Nada (Lana Barić) and her married lover Marek (Andrzej Chyra), whose lives have also been affected by wars. Denied access to the Sarajevo Mission’s archive, Catalina stays at Nada’s place, while trying to figure out her life again, and the two become friends. Just like Nada and Marek, Catalina has dealt with war in her home country and feels alienated.
Hasanović, who moved to Poland from Bosnia in the 1990s, has previously shared writing credits on Polish film Retrieval (2006) and the Icelandic drama Thicker Than Water (2006). Catalina, a Polish-Bosnian-Croatian co-production, tells a story of three emigrants, who all live with war traumas to some extent, despite coming from different countries and cultural backgrounds. All outcasts, these characters form an interesting kind of bond, helping each other out in unexpected ways. The film starts with Catalina being thoroughly checked for contraband at the airport. We feel the humiliation of the procedure. After the scene, though the audience might expect Hasanović to proceed with such overtly political issues, but he leads the story into another direction and avoids these aspects, instead concentrating on the relationships between his characters.
At one point in the film, Nada asks Catalina: “Why war crimes? Nobody’s interested in them anymore.” And Hasanović, as director, presents an involving study not so much of such crimes as their long-term consequences. However, Catalina is not a deep treatment of its subject, but a slice of an emigrant’s struggling life. Hasanović, perhaps intentionally, avoids giving the audience more context. We never fully find out Catalina’s and Marek’s backgrounds, unlike with Nada.
Newcomer Andrea Otalvaro is credible and easily arouses empathy among the viewers as naïve Catalina. But it is Lana Barić’s Nada who truly steals the movie. The Croatian actress expresses a wider range of emotions and her heroine is strong and vulnerable, rough and compassionate at the same time. The picture might have also been called Catalina and Nada, as the female characters are equally developed, and it is their relationship that lies at the core of the film and moves the story forward. Andrzej Chyra doesn’t get as much time as his colleagues but has his moments in few, but important scenes. As Nada’s mother, Serbian actress Mirjana Karanović proves once again that some actors don’t really need much screen time to demonstrate their greatness.