April 10, 2008

Women with good memories

Yesterday, walking home from London to my home, I was listening on my Ipod to a lecture given by an academic at Bath University about Russian literature and in particular about the Village novelists- people like Valentin Rasputin. The lecturer, Professor Gillespie of Bath University, argued that running through the Russian village novelists like Rasputin who acquired their fame in the 1970s was the motif of the surviving family- the family that survives trauma through the endurance of their women folk. Its an interesting theme, and of course was a reality for many Soviet citizens, as Orlando Figes has recently documented in his book the Whisperers, families under Stalin were broken up and destroyed by the effects of the terror and the Gulag. These ideas came to my mind when watching the Hungarian film, Szelerem (Love), which is I think the most interesting cinematic reimagining of the enduring women and the enduring family that I have ever seen.

The issue at the heart of Szelerem and of the period was the arrest and deportation of political prisoners- whether in Russia, Hungary or anywhere else subject to the horrors of the long lived Marxist tyrannies. Men often were carted away for years, taken from their womenfolk and their children for an unspecified period of time, a period in which noone knew whether their husbands, fathers or sons were alive or dead. Its a film about that removal. Alone in a room at the top of a house, is an old woman waiting for her son to return from wherever he has gone. She has been informed by her daughter in law that her son is making a film in New York, but we the audience are swiftly made aware of the fact that her son is a political prisoner and that the daughter is hiding this information from the mother in order to spare her the confrontation with the harsh reality of life.

The old woman sleeps up in an elegant white night gown, reminiscing about her earlier life as a Hungarian aristocrat. The director, Karol Makk, intercuts the sequence of the film with single shots- instant moments of long dead memory, preserved like photos in the mind and stimulated by a moment's reflection. The old woman is sustained by the work of her daughter in law- who pretends that her gifts proceed from the fantasy of the son in America- but who like a duck scrambles under water whilst maintaining a perfect aristocratic facade above the surface. More than that though, the daughter does this despite losing her own job for political reasons and despite the fact that she now has rented out her own house, living in the maid's quarters.

There is something haunting and beautiful about this movie and the performances from a superb Hungarian caste, something gently melancholic about its reflections on the loss of beauty and capacity that come with age- the old woman feebly bemoans the fact that she will never go to another concert- but it is also about the nature of affection and love. Love cannot sustain us through tragedy but it can smooth the downsides and help us shape our circumstances. This intimate film is about all that and more- at its heart it shows how the personal and political interract and gives the lie to cynicism, the greatest casualties of communism were the wives and husbands, children and parents, friends and comrades that it split apart- Szelerem is the monument to those (particularly women) who kept remembering and sustained civilisation through the dark times.


Ian Appleby said...

You wouldn't have a link for the Gillespie podcast, would you? There's a village writer heaving into view in my magnum opus...