The Grand Jeff(ies)
Kontroll (Hungary, 105 mins). Written by Jim Adler and Nimród Antal. Directed by Nimród Antal. Starring Sándor Csányi, Zoltán Mucsi, Csaba Pindroch, Sándor Badár, Zsolt Nagy, Bence Mátyási, Gyözö Szabó, and Eszter Balla
The Hungarian subway system is the world's second-oldest--and it is thus robbed of the cachet of being the oldest. It's just old. The opening shot of Kontroll, this year's Grand Jeffy winner, shows a drunk partygoer wrestling with a bottle of champagne as she rides the impossibly long escalator down down down into the subway. It's late at night, and she's the only one left, which, will probably not likely, reinforces the subway's status in the film: it is the purgatory we all enter alone, to wrestle with our private troubles.
Kontroll is an astonishing allegory that looks like cinema verite. We are introduced to a group of kontroll agents--subway police--who roam the decaying trains in street clothes, legitimized only by red, cloth armbands they don before futile attempts to cajole turnstile-jumpers into payment. The group is headed by Bulscu (Sándor Csányi), who possesses something like Bogart's magnetism and remove. The opening third of the movie is played for raucous comedy, reminiscent of Trainspotting--lots of dry humor played to techno. There are some clues that the reality is skewed (a flask-sipping subway driver lighting his cigarette with a fire-spewing lighter, a rider dressed in a bear suit), but these are played off as excentricities of the underworld.
But then the straightforward narrative shifts, and reality begins to blur. Bulscu doesn't leave the subway at the end of the day, but lays down on the platform after all the lights go off. An owl flies by. Later, he wanders dreamlike recesses of the subway, finding ethereal spills of light and looming, industrial art in machines and track. The film continues to incline toward the metaphoric, but the art direction and cinematography stay rooted in bright, major key reality. It creates a dreamlike effect where the implausible seem wholly expected.
For Bulscu, the subway is a self-inflicted injury. We learn midway through the film that he has abandoned his life as a succesful architect--amid misfits and losers, Bulscu has chosen his own fate. As with all good allegories, there are recognizeable figures. Charon is there ferrying the dead, as is an angel who may usher Bulscu to the light.
I have a feeling that if Kontroll had been an American film, it would have been greeted with something like the thrill that Pulp Fiction and the Matrix brought. Writer and director Nimród Antal has created a totally fresh world that manages arthouse wisdom and Hollywood flair. The symbolism is rich enough to inspire a thousand websites ("Szofi's a bear--I thought she was the White Rabbit!"). In the movie's key scene, Bulscu comes across Bela--the flask-sipping conductor) in his midnight wanderings and they share a late supper. As he leaves, Bulscu asks, "How can you get out of here, Uncle Bela?" Bulscu isn't asking about the subway, and Bela knows it. "There are many ways out, Bulscu." But you'll have to rent the movie to find out what they are.
Grand Jeffy, (documentary category): Murderball. (USA, 95 mins). Directed by Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro.
It's a sneaky and weak-spined thing to give myself two Jeffy slots (not, of course, unprecedented), but it would be harsh and arbitrary to try to decide between a Hungarian allegory and something as concrete as this documentary. And so we create a special category to elevate Murderball beyond just the best documentary.
Documentary films are almost always misunderstood. Their subjects are not fictive--that is, they aren't stand-ins acting out an alternative reality--but neither are they "real." Documentarians have to locate the artistic, metaphoric heart of their subject, and then show that through the real lives and activities of people living out real lives. But it is nevertheless and artificial construction, and only the best documentaries are able to create works that hone reality to an hour and a half of footage that represent the artistic heart they seek.
Murderball is the most successful documentary I've ever seen at doing this, and I hesitate to discuss the film, for fear of spoiling the directors' accomplishment. What can be said is this: despite superficial appearances, Murderball is not about wheelchair rugby or lives of quadriplegics. It is uses the lives of quadriplegics and their interest in wheelchair rugby as a jumping-off point, and then goes much deeper. It is one of the most entertaining, honest, and universal movies I've seen. I think I'd recommend it to anyone, without reservation.