24 January 2013

The red and the grey: The Confrontation

Available on DVD from Monday 28 January, 'The Confrontation' is Second Run's latest release of Hungarian master Miklós Jancsó's work.

The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, aka Sparkling Winds, 1968) follows My Way Home (1964), The Round-Up (1965), The Red and the White (1967) and Red Psalm (1971) on Second Run's growing and commendable roster of films directed by Hungarian maestro Miklós Jancsó (though for a career spanning sixty years that includes significant output in documentary form as well as television and theatre, there's still much work to be done). It is released here for the first time on DVD, with a brand new anamorphic 16:9 digital transfer, a restored mono soundtrack and a newly improved subtitle translation; the disc is accompanied by an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by Graham Petrie, which situates the film within its director's career.

A strange beast indeed, The Confrontation is known as Jancsó's first colour film, and within its first few moments, protagonist Laci Feteke (Lajos Balázsovits, commanding and handsome) steps into frame - momentarily filling it - wearing a scarlet shirt so striking it demands our fullest attention thereafter. Feteke is a leading member of a revolutionary band of students in post-war Hungary, and his arresting sartorial choice is both a badge of honour and a harbinger of barely-shown bloodshed. Assisted by Jutka Lantos (Andrea Drahota, fiery and smart), Feteke's clan of comrades spend their day appealing to a group of reformist students at a Catholic school. A policeman (András Kozák), himself young enough to be a student, moves in and out of these figurative and literal circles with something between predatory instinct and political/intellectual curiosity.

A song and dance affair (though without music, barring one exception), The Confrontation is a distanced and distancing work, made under social and artistic restrictions, and shows Jancsó to be a master of allusion; the film is so specific to Hungarian history - both period and contemporary - that its allegorical significance takes some work to unravel. Set in 1947 and co-written by Jancsó's regular collaborator Gyula Hernádi, the film draws upon its makers' experiences in a Hungary onto which Stalinisation had been imposed gradually following the Second World War; at the same time, the film's production was informed by and expresses the ongoing student revolts that swept across Europe towards the end of the 1960s - its own appearance at Cannes 1968 never happened, when the festival itself was cancelled due to the events of May that year.

To their grey-clad reformist counterparts, Laci and Jutka pose three conundrums: one, what is the role of personality in history? two, is the world knowable? three, Christianity or communism (to quote Godard in response to Hamlet's "to be or not to be" line: "that's not really a question"). As it happens, Jancsó and Hernádi never quite near a position in which they might answer these questions, and in truth the film is only intermittently compelling as a political portrait; about halfway into its slim, 78-minute duration, viewers familiar with the likes of The Red and the White - which was set in 1919 post-revolution Russia and similarly "studied" two opposing political factions, whose methods were closer to one another than either side would like to admit - may feel fatigued by its extended exchange of chanted sloganisms.

Formally, however, the film retains one's interest throughout. Unlike powerhouse auteur and fellow Hungarian Béla Tarr, whose long takes draw attention to both their own length and choreography, Jancsó often shoots scenes from afar though zoomed-in, and roams with his performers so that scenes feel intimate and detached both at once. Though an entire scene may be filmed in a single take, for instance, the arrangement of colours and actors allows for a strangely immersive quality; that impromptu town square dance half an hour into the film, with close-knit but exclusive circles being formed and split on a whim, is a stirring example. A climactic scene involving Party memberships and subsequent expulsions, meanwhile, is shot (by DoP Tamás Somló) from an almost godlike vantage point, with the cast playing out their scene as if members of a college theatre group - which in itself might be a comment by the film's makers on student politics and the ill-fated currents from which they grow.