aka A Napfény íze (Hungary)
Ein Hauch von Sonnenschein (Germany)
Austria/Canada/Germany/Hungary, 1999. Rated R. 180 minutes.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris,
Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Molly Parker, Deborah Unger, James Frain,
John Neville, Miriam Margolyes, David De Keyser, Mark Strong, William
Hurt, Bill Paterson
|Grade: B+||Review by Dana Knowles|
et in Hungary and spanning more than 100 years, Sunshine is a minimalist fable posing as sprawling historical epic, which may make it just as likely to confound and disappoint some as it is to satisfy others. Clocking in at three hours, the film tackles four political regimes, two world wars, and five generations in the life of the fictional Sonnenschein (translates as "sunshine") family. Is three hours enough time to paint an in-depth portrait of a century? Or to consider the nature of living under the constraints of imperialism, fascism or communism, let alone all three? Or to delve deeply into the internal workings of the extended lineage of one family? Certainly not. And if Hungarian director István Szabó was aiming to accomplish those tasks, it is clear that his reach has exceeded his grasp. But it's apparent that he's he shooting for something altogether different from a standard historical epic, resulting in an odd bird of a film that is quietly (if not entirely) successful.
Sunshine begins with a brief introduction to the triumph and tragedy of the great-great grandfather of its narrator. The first Sonnenschein we meet is a rural tavern owner whose late-19th Century success has come from his secret recipe for a tasty herbal tonic that is popular with the locals for its supposed healing powers. Szabó dispatches him almost immediately with an accidental death in a brewery explosion, but he will live on through his recipe notebook, which is found among the rubble and retrieved by his son Emmanuel (David De Keyser). Emmanuel relocates the family to Budapest and becomes wildly successful from mass production and sales of the tonic (known as "A Taste of Sunshine"). His wife Rose (Miriam Margolyes) bears two sons, Ignatz and Gustave, and their family is further increased when they adopt Valerie, the orphaned daughter of Emmanuel's deceased brother. As children, Ignatz and Valerie forge a deep bond, while the petulant Gustave keeps to himself, except when moved to mock them (a three-way dynamic that extends to adulthood). When fully grown, Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes) and Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) discover that their feelings for one another are not even remotely brotherly or sisterly. They are, instead, deeply in love, which–of course–presents a bit of a dilemma. They are cousins by blood and siblings by custom. Can they marry? Should they marry? Against the wishes of their parents, they do, prompting mother Rose–in a fit of rage–to curse Valerie for the willful corruption of her son. And cursed she, they, and their progeny will eventually be.
In addition to the amorously rebellious Ignatz, Fiennes goes on to play his son Adam and his grandson Ivan (our narrator). Each of these characters is at the center of his chapter of the story, each will face dilemmas posed (and clouded) by ideology, ambition, lust, and loyalty, and each will fall from grace. The use of Fiennes as a representative of all three generations may seem to be a casting stunt, but it's not without purpose. In combination with the film's repetitive narrative cycles, Szabó uses the constant presence of Fiennes to underline the relative universality of human response to duress, the fundamental similarities among disparate oppressors, and the long shadow of one's ethnic roots in a society that deems them significant. The historical scope allows for three variations on similar themes, but Szabó deliberately narrows the view to a handful of essential points. It is–if you will–an epic in miniature.
The Sonnenschein family is Jewish, which presents a useful thread through which to connect their trials (particularly in these times and this place), but is less the primary point of focus than it initially may seem. Szabó seems less interested in what it means to be Jewish in an anti-semitic world than what it means to be willing to go along to get along, regardless of what or whom one betrays to do so. Ignatz surrenders his name in service to his ambition, his ethical integrity in service to patriotic loyalty, and his love in service to both. Adam surrenders his religious faith in service to acceptance, his moral integrity in service to recognition, and his love in service to lust. Both men will die broken in spite of their efforts to secure their respective fates, less honorable individuals than they might have been, and with no appreciable gain to show for having betrayed themselves. Ivan follows a similar path, surrendering moral judgment in service to his desire for vengeance, and risking the security of himself and his family in pursuit of a woman whose husband is a powerful political icon. The ethnic heritage of the Sonnenschein men is certainly key to their respective situations, but its role as a social liability and catalyst is ultimately overshadowed by the more fundamental human weaknesses that drive and shape them.
There are limitations inherent in squeezing so many stories into a three-hour film, and Szabó is often forced to skim the surface of events in order to establish his themes. Each of the three chapters has its strengths and weaknesses, but because the film's effect is intended to be cumulative, it's difficult to assess what those are except in retrospect. Among other things, Sunshine is definitely a "way-homer," by which I mean: what seems vaguely unsatisfying or superficial while you're watching it in real time may feel more cohesive and revelatory on the way home from the theater. That's how it worked for me, anyway.
The Big Picture
The first chapter is primarily concerned with establishing the status of the Sonnenschein family, developing the romance between Ignatz and Valerie (and their subsequent rebellion against familial norms) and depicting the process of Ignatz's self-imposed detachment from his roots and his ethical objectivity. Ignatz is reluctant to follow his heart against the expectations of the family, while Valerie is insistent upon following hers. She wins the battle, but Ignatz will ultimately prove to be a man over whom traditions and expectations reign supreme. As he advances in the judicial hierarchy of imperial Hungary, he abandons all concerns that might impede that progress, including his emotional connection to the wife who adores him. This section of Sunshine is greatly buoyed by the captivating presence and endearing performance of Jennifer Ehle as Valerie. Though her character remains as sketchy as the others, one thing is clear: Valerie is the inextinguishable ray of sunshine in this clan. She seeks little more from life than passion and beauty, and is confounded by the realization that Ignatz does not (or cannot) share her view. Instead, he seeks acceptance from the state, seeing himself as an extension of the ruling hand of the Emperor, whom he reveres in spite of the oppression inherent in that rule. Ignatz is personal ambition and blind nationalism run amok. When he tumbles out of favor along with the regime he serves, the breadth of his failures (professional and personal) are inconceivable to him.
A similar pattern is repeated with his son, Adam, who rises to fame as an extraordinarily gifted fencer. Driven to achieve the pinnacle of prizes and acclaim in his sport, Adam converts to Catholicism in order to be accepted into the most elite of fencing clubs, thereby securing a chance at Olympic competition. His conversion begins as a practical "necessity," but soon becomes a world view... not so much in the sense that he comes to believe in the tenets of Catholicism, but in his adoption of the exclusionary attitudes that were once aimed at him. The rewards of assimilation seduce him into abandoning his moral equilibrium along with his religious beliefs, and the consequences are devastating. As the Nazis rise to power and overtake Hungary, Adam is forced to confront the emptiness and irrelevance of his achievements. Like Ignatz before him, Adam cannot quite believe that his betrayals are no shield against the impersonal tide of human cruelty, clinging to them desperately until his grip is forcibly broken.
The final act brings Adam's son Ivan into similar spiritual terrain. Having survived the Nazis, Ivan seeks revenge for the decimation of his family by joining the ranks of the Hungarian secret police, who operate under the auspices of their anti-Nazi liberators, the Soviet Union. The oppressed becomes the oppressor, which doesn't seem to trouble Ivan at all until he is forced to target an innocent colleague (William Hurt) who's been accused of partaking in a Zionist conspiracy. Whether Ivan will repeat the mistakes of his ancestors by accommodating tyranny to secure his own safety is the crux of Szabó's musings. Different time, different names, different ideologies, different rulers... same old story. With the benefit of what he knows about those who came before him, can Ivan comprehend that security is an illusion that cannot be bought at any price, not even at the cost of personal honor?
Sunshine is neither a lavish production nor a stylistic marvel. It stumbles at times in its rush to provide easily decipherable thematic points or historical background information, particularly with the inclusion of archival footage, which is often clumsily dropped in amid the very personal dramas in progress. Its narrative simplicity sometimes feels like a detriment, but later becomes a virtue that pays off in some interesting ways. Many scenes from each generation are staged in the family dining room, for instance, which may come to seem like unimaginative storytelling (or a reflection of a limited budget). But the repetition of place gives added weight to later scenes as we recognize the progression of this family through the years. Particularly haunting is a scene (from the Adam storyline) that involves little more than the current incarnation of the family sitting at that same dining room table, listening to the radio as the Hungarian government outlines its new policies regarding the rights of Jews. It's an incredibly powerful scene in spite of its simplicity, because the room itself carries the memory of the entire history of this clan. Another haunting moment comes in the last act, when the paltry few Holocaust survivors are all together for the first time. A room that has been perpetually full is now shockingly empty, and the earlier repetitions of this location allow Szabó to establish the gravity of their loss without anybody uttering a word of dialogue to underline it. We don't need a litany of the dead. We recognize them by their absence.
The cast is excellent, though many of the actors are featured too briefly to make much of an impact. Fiennes handles his three roles ably, creating small distinctions that allow us to believe that he is not the same person from generation to generation. As is often the case with the roles he chooses, Fiennes uses his physical grace and his beauty to offset the less likable aspects of these men, keeping them human and sympathetic even when they alarm or disappoint us with their actions or their chilly demeanor. When called upon to express anger or desperation, Fiennes certainly delivers the goods. With the exception of a few notable scenes, however, none of the three roles is overtly complex or demanding, which means that (other than by fans of restraint and understatement), Fiennes' work will be appreciated more for its scope than its depth. David De Keyser and Miriam Margolyes give memorable turns as the patriarch and matriarch whose descendants drift further and further from their familial traditions. William Hurt is solid, touching, and absolutely unmannered in his small but crucial role. Rosemary Harris is given the thankless task of replacing her real-life daughter, Jennifer Ehle, as the aging Valerie. Though she doesn't match Ehle's radiance, she does a lovely job of suggesting it in ways that are absolutely fitting for her character's progression from youthful passion for what might be to serene acceptance of what is.
Szabó treads an unusual path in this portrait of beleaguered Jews in 20th Century Europe. Rather than establish a valiant, lovably virtuous family whose religious devotion and ethnic heritage are driven from them and later turned upon them, he gives us protagonists who are patently unheroic and–at times–downright unlikable. Society may press them into making horrifying or degrading choices, but their choices are still choices to be embraced or rejected. And because the various tides of evil that sweep them up and spit them out are indifferent to their efforts to be accommodating, their willing embrace of spiritual and moral self-destruction is revealed to be the worst of all possible options. Despite the lack of complex development, Szabó does reasonable justice to his characters by allowing them messes of their own making, in addition to those imposed by outside forces. This is particularly so when they're dealing in the realm of love, be it romantic or lust-driven. Not one of these people is sensible when it comes to sexual attraction, which strikes me as an amusing (if somewhat overstated) bit of "historical accuracy."
In terms of the grander themes of repression and response, the deck is never stacked against these misguided characters in an effort to shore up our sense of superiority. Though they may choose unwisely, theirs are not simple acts of willful disregard for morality or integrity. Szabó affords them motives that are fully understandable to all of us. Ignatz is not driven by megalomania or depravity, but by an earnest devotion to his country. His choices reflect a sincere effort to be a good citizen to his Emperor, even if it means lessening his affiliation with his family and his religion. When asked to change his name to one that sounds less Jewish and more Hungarian, it seems a minor price to pay for significant advancement. Why should he let a little thing like a name stand in the way of his chance to serve his country more effectively? And why should Adam let a little thing like a religion he doesn't even practice get in the way of allowing his athletic talent to blossom in the ultimate arena? By the time we get to Ivan, the stakes are higher, but the concept is exactly the same. What does it mean to be willing to do the dishonorable thing? Szabó makes no bones about the fact that these are unfair, cruel, insulting dilemmas to face, but the heinousness of the outside forces are never his primary concern. Instead, he chooses to illuminate the degree to which acquiescence to evil is the fuel it lives on. Rather than give us pristine victims to pity and mourn, he asks us to focus on the nature of complicity–and the human desire to seek exemption from the tyranny of evil by joining forces with it in what may appear to be innocuous ways.
By spreading this process over three generations and repeating its dynamics under various circumstances, he hammers home the point that none of us is destined to survive, regardless of the choices we face and make. Immortality is not the province of any man, but it is the province of every man's legacy. Our lives are temporary, but their impact is permanent. Yet we often live as if the reverse were true. A simple message? Absolutely. And a simple tale, as well. Sunshine flits over the socio-political complexities of its eras and the deeper nooks and crannies of its characters as if they were of negligible importance. And in this context they are. This is not the story of our tragic 20th Century, or of Hungary, or of Eastern Europe, or of Jews facing discrimination. It is the story of being born into a world that is–and has always been–a trial that we either endure and evade, or embrace and face with dignity. Sunshine may not be landmark cinema, but it's a well-told tale that tackles a familiar theme in an unusual and inventive way. Its schematic structure is intellectually effective, thought-provoking, and dramatically compelling, but Szabó never quite achieves the sense of graceful flow or rhythm that would really make it soar. In that respect, Sunshine is a bit of a misfire, but definitely an ambitious and worthy one.
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