23-10-2017

Aurora Borealis – Northern Light: Review

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Hungary, 2017
Director: Márta Mészáros
104 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.