“Nagy recasts historical and political traumas, which resound into the strange realities and shifting narratives of today’s Europe”.
The 5th edition of El Gouna Film festival began with an open-air screening of the powerful Hungarian movie Natural Light’s Dénes Nagy, an absorbing, beautifully crafted addition to the new Hungarian cinema, along with Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul and Ildiko Enyedi’s Of Body and Soul.
Basing his film on a novel of the same name by Pal Zavada but focusing on just three days of the 20-year tale recounted in the book, documentary director Nagy recasts historical and political traumas, which resound into the strange realities and shifting narratives of today’s world, today’s Europe, or the Hungary of Viktor Orban.
The film is set during World War II, in the Hungarian-occupied Soviet territory. A simple Hungarian farmer, István is part of a special unit tasked with travelling from village to village seeking out partisan groups in the icy marshland. When his company falls under enemy fire, and their commander is killed, he reluctantly has to take command. The unit makes camp in an occupied village, to interrogate suspected partisans, but the villagers do not take kindly to their guests, to say the least. There is something of a thaw, however, between the brass and the village elders, who share a banquet of plentiful rations, trading jovialities, and homemade booze. Their occupation is, nonetheless, fraught with a constant, sinister tension, intensified by moments of cruelty: a thief is made to crawl under a table like a pig, and women are displaced from their beds. Among the soldiers, István is a sensitive, thoughtful man, and reacts with natural human empathy to the villagers’ needs. He is the witness of the horrors, frozen with unhappiness and fear.
Denes Nagy worked on this project, that is his first future movie, for 6 years, with the support of his school friends Tamas Dobos the cinematographer and Marcell Gero the producer. He spent two years casting for the film, searching for his actors on cow and pig farms in the Hungarian countryside. Eventually giving a first film role to Ference Szabo—with his expressive, melancholic face—as Istvan, the corporal who finds himself thrust into the foreground.
Nagy’s work has largely been solemn, painterly documentaries about rural Hungary and trauma, and it’s easy to appreciate how gracefully he’s adapted both the behavioural eye and the aesthetic accuracy of those films to a period setting here. In Natural Light’s obsession with faces and gestures, its patience, and in the delicacy and abundance of its close-ups, there is lot of authenticity in this movie.
As the title suggests, natural light plays an important role in the film and the work by DOP Tamas Dobos is impressive. Tamas was previously a stills photographer and here applies an incredible technique that recalls the Thirties and Forties. He's working with antiquated technology, using a glass negative, a very particular handmade process few modern DPs will ever encounter. Lamps were used only in the night scenes.
Natural Light had its world premiere in Berlin and has now chalked up 20 festivals appearances. Here in El Gouna it was very well received. This is a movie that goes beyond its time and place, an anti-war movie, describing a descent into darkness by men who face constant moral dilemmas of guilt and conscience, affirming the power of the individual as the fulcrum to break collective madness.
Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.
Latest from Rita Di Santo
- Pacifiction at Cannes 2022: a spotlight on contemporary politics and neo-colonialism in Tahiti
- Cannes 2022: R.M.N. by Cristian Mungiu
- A powerful statement about poverty and class struggle: The Gravedigger's Wife
- 'My movies are about class inequality': Rita Di Santo interviews Alejandra Márquez Abella
- Revolutionary changes to come? The Red Sea Film Festival