Sunshine (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I lived and worked in Hungary for a while after the fall of Communism. In the process of looking for suitable real estate for our business, I journeyed through virtually every nook and cranny of the country. Although I lived in Pest, I could get in my car and drive to any major town in the country without a map. I did make a mental note of the ethic diversity of the population, but it never really sank in to my conscious mind that Hungary is the perfect microcosm of Europe in the 20th century.

The varied ethnic composition of the people is the lesser component of the formula. Hungarians might look like Scandinavians, or they might look like Turks, or anything in between. Hungary had a substantial Jewish and Gypsy population before WW2, and is still home to many gypsies, Romanians, and other minorities. Because the Hungarian women have always been considered both beautiful and pleasant, they have been treasured as brides by Germans, Poles, Russians, and anybody else who wandered along with an eye for female pulchritude mixed with a sensible disposition. I was in love with a Hungarian woman myself, even tried to figure out a way to continue the relationship when I left Hungary, but could not and moved on. She came from a rich family that had its land restored from pre-Communist times. I wonder sometimes if I could have found some way to manage parts of her father's estates, but I didn't speak Hungarian, so there was no life for me there, and she didn't speak English, so there was no life for her here. (We communicated in German. We were both employed by an Austrian company.) I still think about her, and saved all her letters, although I don't keep in touch any more. The point is that the desirability of the women caused Hungarian blood to become even more mixed, so that you can't really say "he looks Hungarian". I don't know what a Hungarian looks like. Even in the small towns, there was a wide diversity of physical types. 

The greater component of my microcosm formula is the political history of Hungary in the 20th century. Imagine this. The country began the century with an emperor. There was a Communist revolution in Hungary a couple years after the USSR was formed, but this first experiment with Communism was short-lived. The Communists were overthrown by a right-wing military coup, and this rule eventually became so fascistic that it Nazified, and Hungary fought for the Axis in WW2. When the war ended, the Soviet Union gained hegemony over the country, and the second period of Communism began. Ten years later, the Hungarians tried to gain their freedom from Communism in a revolt which turned into one of the great televised spectacles of the era. The Hungarian revolt was suppressed by Russia, but not until the end of a brave and quixotic struggle which pitted Russian tanks against barefoot Hungarian children in the streets of Pest. The rag-tag revolutionaries held their own for a few days, even captured a few tanks. They exploited a flaw in the Russian communications system to blast some of the Russian tanks away with other Russian tanks, and even got some Russians shooting at other Russians by swapping the flags on their tanks. Of course, the Magyar struggle against mighty Russia was doomed without help from the West, and the Western democracies had no taste for waging a war on the nuclear precipice, so they sat by as the Soviets eventually squelched the pseudo-revolution with sheer muscle.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolt ended up in the Western consciousness as an embarrassing example of our spinelessness. Many people in Europe and the Americas were ashamed that they sat back and let the gallant Hungarians be crushed.

But the Russians were far more embarrassed and, in a typical Soviet move, eliminated the Hungarian revolution from their textbooks completely. "That's right, comrade, it never existed. The glorious Soviet system is so ideal that surely nobody would oppose it. And if a bunch of dirty-faced children did oppose it, surely they wouldn't hold their own against the glorious might of the Red Army which single-handedly defeated the Germans!" 


Ralph Fiennes appears nude, full-frontal, in two separate scenes.

Debra Unger is seen bottomless from the front in an outdoor sex scene. 

Rachel Weisz is topless, in principle, but it is so dark, and there is so much motion blur, that nothing can be seen clearly.

To this day, Elya still only half-believes me when I tell her about it. For the most stirring account of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, I recommend that you read James Michener's "The Bridge at Andau".

I guess the point I'm making here is that Hungary was the perfect setting for one of those multi-generational family epics in which fictional family members mix freely with real historical figures. Hollywood used to make zillions of these pictures and mini-series in which the family improved its economic fate every generation, but perhaps lost the original integrity of the patriarch. You know the genre. Immigrant grandpa was sweeping the floor when Edison invented the light bulb, and the swabbie dad played a game of 8-ball once with FDR when the great man was Secretary of the Navy, and the lawyer grandson was a Nixon aide who went to prison. Usually they tried to make the fictional character responsible for something integral to the world. Ol' grandpa would be the guy who somehow recommended tungsten to Edison, and dad would tell FDR he looked stirring in firelight, and the kid recommended the taping system to Nixon. Forrest Gump was both a satire of and an homage to this kind of film. (Actually, the book was a satire, but the film lost most of that edge in a sentimental deluge of mush.)

This is one of those multi-generation thingies. It is kind of a soap opera like "Rich Man, Poor Man", filled with people marrying their stepsisters and humping their brothers-in-law and such, but it is also an incisive look at the social milieu of 20th century Europe and its specific relationship with its Jewish minority. The family consisted of prosperous and proud Jews at the turn of the century, but as the generations passed, they first changed their name to Sors to become more Hungarian, and then some of them became Roman Catholics to assimilate still further. Ultimately, their efforts didn't matter. The middle generation consisted mainly of a championship fencer who was applauded by the Nazis in the 1936 Olympics, then was killed in a concentration camp despite the fact that he was a national hero of a German ally, and a Roman Catholic by faith.

At last, the final generation in the film went back to the old family name, stopped denying their heritage, and "someone in our family breathed freely for the first time in generations"

The film really does a good job at showing how and why people allied with various movements that seemed repulsive in retrospect. Many Jews were happy to see the first socialist regime deposed and the military take power. They were prosperous, successful people who had no interest in socialism. Of course, that reign turned to fascism. Needless to say, many Jews subsequently became Communists when Communism emerged as the sworn enemy of the Nazis.  Later, many Jews became anti-Communists when Stalin sought to disprove the common belief that Communism was a Zionist conspiracy. Well, you can imagine the methods that Stalin, being Stalin, chose to make his point.

Alignment was the story of the 20th century, wasn't it? It isn't just Jewish people that got caught in the -isms. The middle of the century turned out to be a great struggle between two great monsters, Hitler and Stalin, with two monstrous ideologies. For the Jews, Hitler was the ultimate enemy, so there were many Jews who ended up on the Communist side of the struggle. But for American capitalism, Communism was the ultimate enemy, and many Americans ended up sympathetic to Germany because the Germans stood as an obstacle to the spread of Marxist-Leninist dogma. Many Americans wanted to stay neutral in WW2, and the country did stay neutral long after FDR was convinced it could not be. It was only the attack on American soil that finally forced the USA into the war. 

Only Churchill stood above all the -isms with a clear head. When asked if he thought that England should align itself with such a monster as Stalin and such a monstrous ideology as Communism, Churchill replied in unambiguous terms that if Hitler were to invade hell, he would sign a pact with Satan. The problem was that Churchill seemed to be the only man in America or Britain who caught on right from the beginning. Plenty of people thought that Hitler could be trusted, or that he was our point man against Communism in Europe.

At any rate, Hungary's history and ethnic variety make it the perfect country to represent the history of the 20th century, and a Jewish family was the perfect choice for the generational study. The film is grand and sweeping, and it incorporates enough juicy gossip and character development that you'll find it to be a painless history pill in chewable form. Ralph Fiennes plays the lead part in three consecutive generations of the family, and he does enough to make his characterizations believable as three separate men. Luckily for Ralph, none of the characters had any sense of humor, so Fiennes' only weakness was not evident, and he brought a sturdy integrity to the project, supported by a powerful cast of various Europeans and North Americans, with real Hungarians in most of the background roles.

The film was written and directed by Hungarian Istvan Szabo, and much of it was filmed on location in Hungary. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1. Clean transfer.

  • Disappointing DVD for such an important film. No features at all.

Tuna's comments in yellow: 

Scoopy had it exactly right, but he originally rated it C+, as it was his type of movie, and he was not sure of crossover appeal.

It is not my sort of genre, and I liked it very much, despite its three hour running time and frequent voice-over. Hungry has been added to my list of travel destinations based on the locations and photography.


The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 71.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 70% positive overall, 67% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it a stratospheric 8.0, Apollo users a more modest 76/100. The IMDb score is good enough to place it in the top 100 of all time, if it can retain the score with a higher vote count.
  • With their dollars ... it did only $5 million in the USA in limited distribution. I think it would work great in the USA if split into two or three parts and broadcast as a mini-series. The USA doesn't have much patience with serious, three hour historical epics.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Tuna rated it a B, and convinced me that it is a more broadly appealing movie that I had originally thought, so I also say B without altering any opinions, just the grade. Even at three hours, it's such a good film that it may win over some people who wouldn't normally watch a historical epic.

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