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Aurora Borealis – Northern Light: Review

FIPRESCI Warsaw Critics Project 2017 2017-10-23


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.


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FIPRESCI Young Critics Warsaw Project

Călin Boto is a Romanian emergent film critic and the editor-in-chief of Film Menu, a film magazine edited by students of the Film University in National University of Film and Drama in Bucharest (UNATC). He has written articles for several cultural publications such as Dilema Veche,Dissolved Magazine, SUB25 and he coordinates Film Menu’s weekly cineclub. At the moment he’s working on a bachelor's degree on the films and film criticism of Jonas Mekas.

Barbara Majsa was born and raised in Hungary, but currently resides in Sweden and attends Stockholm University for Cinema Studies. She has worked as a journalist since 2009, and has covered several film festivals. Barbara is the managing editor at Cinema Scandinavia, where she interviews film-makers and focuses her work on artistic and cultural products that reflect upon society - films concerning social, societal, economic and political issues.

Yulia Kuzischina is a film journalist, based in Moscow. She studied visual culture at Higher School of Economics and later started to write for two film-related websites, RussoRosso and Kinomania.ru. Currently she also works at a film sales company Ant!pode Sales & Distribution. Her main field of interest is Eastern European cinema.

Tomáš Hudák  is a programmer and a film critic based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Programming at independent cultural centre A4 – Space for contemporary culture, which focus on challenging and experimental art, is his main occupation throughout a year. He is also associated with IFF Cinematik in Pieštany, Bratislava IFF, and Film Festival 4 Elements in Banská Štiavnica. Regularly writing for film magazine Kinečko, his texts also appeared in other publications such as Senses of Cinema, Tess Magazine etc. In past, he worked as a film archivist at Slovak Film Institute and his archival research resulted in two papers on local film history.

Daria Badior is a film critic and a Culture Editor of LB.ua, one of Ukraine’s biggest online newspapers. Focuses on writing about contemporary Ukrainian cinema. Also she co-curates a project on LB.ua named Short-list about young Ukrainian filmmakers. Since 2017 takes part
in selecting films for Kyiv Film Critics Week, a new film festival held at the end of October. A member of FIPRESCI.

Łukasz Mańkowski Half of the Asian Cinema focused blog ‘Referat Filmowy’, Japanese Studies and Film Theory graduate from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, specializing in Asian Film. Occasionally photographer, translator and theatre-film journalist who simply loves ramen. Previously member of 5 Flavours Film Festival People’s Jury, FEFF Udine Student Campus and EIFF Student Critics Competition.

TUTORS of FIPRESCI Young Critics Warsaw Project

Yoana Pavlova is a Bulgarian writer, researcher, and programmer currently based in Paris.Her field of work includes cinema, VR, digital culture, and the New East. She is the foundingeditor of Festivalists.com (a playform for experimental media criticism), with bylines fornumerous print and online publications in Bulgarian, English, and French. Contributor to thefollowing books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014,Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague(2012, Edno).

Tommaso Tocci is based in Italy, where he works as a film critic and translator covering filmfestivals across Europe for international publications. He has also worked for BerlinaleTalents and for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and he currently serves as Co-Programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival in Switzerland.