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'Kontroll': Going Underground

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 12, 2005

It's pretty clear that Hungarian filmmaker Nimrod Antal's visually stylish surrealist drama, set almost entirely underground in the Budapest subway system, isn't meant to be taken literally.

Centering on the work shifts of an eccentric crew of ticket inspectors, "Kontroll's" hero is the darkly handsome loner Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi), a man who sleeps on the station platforms during his off hours and, while on duty, likes to engage in "railing" (racing on foot through tunnels just ahead of moving trains). Part mystery thriller, part love story and part "No Exit"-style allegory about the human condition, the film ostensibly concerns the efforts of Bulcsu and his team to apprehend a recidivist fare-beater named Bootsie (Bence Matyassy) and to track down a shadowy hooded figure who has been pushing passengers into the paths of oncoming trains. Still, most of "Kontroll" seems to have more to do with such existential concerns as despair and the meaninglessness of life than the tying up of loose plot ends. That doesn't mean that Bulcsu won't have time during his nocturnal peregrinations to strike up a flirtation with a pretty girl in a bear costume (Eszter Balla), just that Antal's notions of storytelling are less influenced by the boy-meets-girl convention than by boy-meets-destiny.

In the end, though, I don't think it really matters what "Kontroll" is about. Not exactly, at any rate. Antal seems happy to leave things open-ended, and his real gift is not in nailing his symbolism down anyway, but in creating and sustaining a mood of deeply claustrophobic anxiety, set to a throbbing rock soundtrack, and from which release only comes at the last minute, and in the form of an angel who transforms the ubiquitous subway escalator into a literal stairway to heaven.

Kontroll (R, 105 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, violence and brief sexual content. In Hungarian with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company