(While Hammer to Nail typically avoids more mainstream fare, we’re also film fans who are anxiously awaiting the 2018 Oscars! That being said, this week we will roll out reviews and think-pieces on films that are Oscar nominated but may not be getting the attention they so richly deserve.)
One of the five Oscar nominees in this year’s Foreign Language Film category, On Body and Soul, from Hungary, is the sole contender currently playing on Netflix. Lucky you, dear reader, as that makes it easy to watch, and watch it you should. Director Ildikó Enyedi (My Twentieth Century) may not be the most prolific of cineastes, but this has not stopped her from making, here, a work of great originality and moving drama. She starts simply, but by the end she has told a story of profound human connection that resonates long after the credits have rolled.
Endre, a man on the grizzled side of 50 (or more), is the financial manager of a Budapest slaughterhouse. One of his arms is disabled, though he makes do, and no one takes much notice. He is affable enough, though no one would accuse him of excess warmth. When Mária, a new quality inspector, arrives to work at the factory, he takes notice, and not because she is younger and pretty (though she is those, too). Everyone, in fact, pays immediate attention, since there is clearly something different about her. She appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum and/or suffering form obsessive-compulsive disorder, though her co-workers just read her as odd and aloof. Not so Endre, who, though hardly smitten (at first, anyway), sees in her a fellow outcast, of sorts. And so begins an unlikely, tentative friendship.
The film begins with two deer – a buck and a doe – wandering through a wintery forest scene. Given the peaceful stillness of the setting, we can’t help worrying that, soon, a shot may ring out, taking one of them down. But no; that is not the purpose of these scenes. Instead, they represent an idyll away from the cares of the real world, a refuge that links our two main characters, though in a way I will not reveal in this review.
For Endre and Mária both need each other – or someone to accept them for who they are – and this thirst for intimacy draws them close, though the path to a comfortable camaraderie is a prickly one. I was uneasy, for a bit, over their difference in age, since the cinematic world already has its share of movies about an older man meeting an age-inappropriate young woman. Enyedi, though, sets up their mutual loneliness – Mária’s, especially – in such a detailed, heartbreaking way, that it feels, instead, deeply satisfying when the two finally come to an understanding.
Indeed, Alexandra Borbély, as Mária, delivers an extremely touching performance as a person desperate to find a soul mate and painfully unable to do so. Géza Morcsányi, as Endre, is her equal in pathos, though the more cathartic on-screen resolution is Mária’s. Frequently sad as their story may be, however, there is no small amount of humor in their situation, as well. Endeki is not above mining Mária’s obsession with order and logic for the occasional comic bit, and out of this comes an even greater empathy for her plight. Like the deer in the woods, all our two protagonists want is to get along, happy next to a bosom friend. In this irresistibly sweet romantic dramedy, we cannot but root for them to succeed.
In Hungarian, with English subtitles.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)