Bela Tarr is one of the most renown -- albeit unknown -- Hungarian directors of avant-garde film (the other more famous Hungarian director of this ilk is Miklos Jansco). I had seen Tarr's film Kárhozat (Damnation) a couple years ago, and that ranks as one of the most striking films that I have ever seen. I would try to describe it but others have already done it eloquently enough: a link to a blog entry on Tarr's Satantango.
The films, Satantango, Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies, are famous art films which explore the metaphysical and mystical using bleak black-and-white cinamatography. But before these films, Tarr made a series of social realism films while he was still in his 20s. These are very different and were shot in a kind of film-verite style with handheld cameras and small filming spaces. I had never seen his early work, and Kaja agreed to watch it with me although I warned that it would not be a feel-good film. Well, Family Nest was an experience. Kaja and I sat on the couch in a daze after it was over. It was like we had been psychologically beaten upon for an hour. Oy.
The movie is set mostly in one small apartment where, because of the housing shortage in Hungary in the 1970s, three families are crammed together. Imagine the worst kind of family dynamics possible, that it what Family Nest, aka Family Cesspool, makes you an intimate part of for a little over an hour. The filming and directing is masterful -- you really feel like you are there; I even felt like I could smell it.
The self-created hell in the family nest is oppressive. Everyone is crammed altogether, and they argue non-stop. When the lights go out, the arguments finally stop but then other joys continue. The father-in-law is a slimy man who is constantly pressuring his daughter-in-law for sex and slips into his daughter-in-law's bed next to the sleeping 2-yr old granddaughter. Finally, the daughter-in-law's husband comes back from the army, which will hopefully put the brakes on the nightly visits. The daughter-in-law has a woman-friend over that evening and a couple hours after his return, the husband and his brother walk the woman home. They rape her and then the husband comes home and has sex with his wife. Awful.
The movie ends with a epilogue. The husband and wife have separated -- the relationship was strained for some reason (hmm, I wonder why?). We get close-ups monologues of each bemoaning the loss of the relationship. There is a sense that life is only getting worse.
I gave it 2 stars just because it was so painful to watch. Both Kaja and I have family in Eastern Europe and this struck a little close to home -- not the abuse and rape bits, but rather the negative effects that social upheaval and communism had on families and the tendency of the strain to bring out the worst in people. A friend who grew up in Romania during the communist era put it this way -- she felt like people during this era had all their compassion sucked out them simply because life was so hard and the system pitted everyone against each other even against your own family. The system made people ugly and cruel to each other and this movie captures that. But I do think, Family Nest is a must-see for Iron Curtain-era filmmaking. The directing is masterful.
Background on Bela Tarr from KinoEye
Review of the films of Bela Tarr