• Director: Márta Mészáros
  • Writers: Gyula Hernadi, Márta Mészáros, and Ferenc Grunwalsky
  • Starring: Katalin Berek, Gyongyver Vikh, Peter Fried, Laszlo Szabo, and Flora Kadar
  • Accolades: BBC 2019 Top 100 films directed by women (#97), Golden Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival 
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video

A few days ago we talked about Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu, which specifically pulls back from telling the audience what to feel. As part of this, Ozu puts his camera further back than it usually would be, often showing full conversations in “two-shot.” Ӧrökbefogadás, translated to English as Adoption, is an example of almost the exact opposite technique. Márta Mészáros makes movies about female characters, often semi-autobiographical, always with empathy. She wants us to feel the emotions her characters are feeling. Almost the entire movie is thus played in hard close-up, further in than you’d usually see even in a TV show.

Ӧrökbefogadás received a good amount of attention in the US and Western Europe, despite coming from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. This was likely possible because of the type of story it tells. There is no mention of Communism, or the government. It is just a story of two women from different worlds who meet unexpectedly, find that their problems are not so different, become close friends, and help each other. Kati (Katalin Berek) is a middle-aged factory worker who feels intensely lonely despite her long-term relationship with a married man (Laszlo Szabo). She tells him she “wants his child,” but he balks. Anna (Gyongyver Vikh) is an older teenager (the movie just says she’s “underage”) living in a nearby “institution.” One gets the sense an American movie would have said “orphanage,” though Anna is not an orphan. Her parents gave her up for a variety of vaguely elucidated reasons, including that they thought she was “a whore.” Anna has found a 22-year-old man who seems nice and wants to marry her, but because of her age her parents have to sign off.

One day while walking through the small town Anna and some of her friends stop by Kati’s “workshop” to ask her what she’s doing. The friends soon wander off, but Anna stays behind to ask Kati if maybe she would allow her to use her spare room for a liaison with her boyfriend. Kati initially refuses, saying she “doesn’t like strangers around,” and Anna leaves in a bit of a teenage snit, but Kati can’t quite get Anna out of her head, and eventually goes to find her at the institution. They become very close friends. Anna helps Kati deal with her lover, and Kati helps Anna get the approval of her parents for her marriage. The last ten minutes have Anna getting married and Kati adopting an orphan baby.

What I found interesting about the movie is the relationship between the two lead characters. At one point Kati explains to the director of Anna’s institution that “she could be my daughter, or my friend,” and she later says that she decided to adopt “after I started spending time with Anna.” It certainly seems that the “adoption” of the title has at least a double meaning, as Kati both adopts Anna figuratively and later adopts a child of her own, literally. But this isn’t what most Americans, at least, would consider a traditional mother-daughter relationship. Anna asks Kati if she has a cigarette, Kati gives her one without a second thought. Later, Anna has sex with her boyfriend, while Kati is doing dishes in the next room without doing anything about it. At one point, she knocks on their door, and Anna answers fully in the nude. We think Kati’s going to say something about it, but she just asks, “Can you hand me my robe?” Anna and her boyfriend get back to it afterwards, while Kati just throws the robe over the couch. Anna is testing whether Kati’s going to really act like her mother, I think, but what is Kati doing? It’s clear she didn’t really need the robe, but the movie leaves open to interpretation what was really going on. My theory is that she was checking to see if Anna was OK and not being pressured into anything.

The two of them relate as equals, but more even than that it seems that they see themselves in each other. That they hold their faces so close to each other in many scenes of this movie is probably an example of me noticing cultural differences, but a small part of me, as a 2020 viewer used to European art films over the years, kept expecting them to kiss. That of course would not be something they did in a movie that made it past the censors in 1970s Communist Hungary, even had Mészáros wanted to make that movie. Instead, they each try to keep the other from making the same mistakes they have, regardless of the age difference.

When Mészáros made her first full-length movie in 1968, it was thought to be the first full-length movie ever directed by a Hungarian woman. She tells, in her own words, “banal” stories of female protagonists, telling the stories of the problems experienced by Hungarian women from a female perspective. Most of her films include elements from Mészáros’ own life. She had been an orphan herself and in fact lived at one time at an institution not so different from that depicted in this movie. Unlike Anna, she had to do so because her father was imprisoned and killed by the Stalinist government. Yet one gets the sense that, even if Mészáros could have “gotten political” with her films at the time, she wouldn’t have wanted to. She is far more interested, like Ozu, in small, human moments.

As it is, aside from a couple of word usages that make the film feel vaguely “foreign,” there’s nothing about Ӧrökbefogadás that makes feels particular to a certain time or place. Despite taking place in a country under an authoritarian regime, the movie could easily be transplanted to 1975 America with no changes whatsoever to the plot. More than that, there isn’t really anything that keeps it from taking place in 2020.

I would say a solid half of the movie doesn’t have dialogue. Instead, Mészáros shows us the characters behaving and interacting. There isn’t a big conversation where Kati agrees to stay with or break up with her boyfriend. We watch her pour them both glasses of wine, and then they clink glasses, say “cheers,” and sit down silently together. We’re left to figure out what they’re thinking from the performances. I admit that I have a limit for this sort of thing, unlike many of the film critics you’ll read in a newspaper or on the internet. I wouldn’t want every movie to be like this, and at just under an hour and half this movie was about as long as I would have wanted it to be. But I do think that we should be open to learning about other people and ourselves through all different kinds of stories, and approached that way I enjoyed the empathy and understanding Ӧrökbefogadás shows toward its characters.

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