The collapse of detente may give an unexpected boost to the commercial chances of "Angi Vera," the absorbing new Hungarian film opening today at ther Outer Circle.
This sober, incisive, subtly revealing account of conformist pressure within a communist society made a strong impression when it premiered at the New York Film Festival last fall. At the time, its potential public seemed severely limited: Hungarian filmmakers enjoy an international critical reputation for serious-minded, technically sophisticated work; but no Hungarian feature has ever caught on in the American art-house market.
The time may be right for "Angi Vera." And after the success of "la Cage aux Folles" and "The Marriage of Eva Braun," the market itself could stand some sobering up.
Directed by Pal Gabor from his own adaptation of a prize-winning novel by Endre Veszi, "Angi Vera" is an ironically devastating "success story" about a young woman who betrays herself in the most profound moral and emotional respects while seeking to secure her future in an emerging Communist Party bureaucracy. It's a straightforward, contemporary East European variation on the kind of Faustian sell-out fable typified in a capitalist setting by something like "Room at the Top."
"Angi Vera" takes place in 1948, soon after the coup that brought a Soviet-dominated Communist regime to power in post-war Hungary. Vera, portrayed by an astonishing doe-eyed 18-year-old beauty named Veronika Papp (whose face and eyes exert a magnetic hold on Gabor's cameras) is a teen-age orphan of the storm. Her father and mother were killed during the war. She has found employment as a nurse's aid at the hospital where her stricken mother took refuge.
When a party official arrives on an inspection tour, Vera is the only one who dares to unburden herself at a staff meeting. In the course of an utterly sincere, heartfelt condemnation, she describes conditions as deplorable and the hospital authorities as domineering and uncaring.
This brave gesture earns her the good opinion of the party, but it's apparent that official motives may not be quite as sincere as her own. A certain chill imposes itself -- and never lets go -- when a solicitous party type assures Vera, "We'll take care of your life from now on. The party will teach you. We all have your interest at heart."
The interest is demonstrated by Vera's assignment to a new indoctrination school designed to train future party functionaries. The students sooner or later discover that the course of study is actually meant to inspire fear and obedience in the presence of authority and a willingness to inform on themselves and fellow comrades. Vera learns the lessons all too well.
Naturally, Gabor allows himself no bourgeois editorial denunciations of the system that transforms Vera's youthful ardor into a humiliating form of dependence. But it is abundantly clear which kind of conduct he considers honorable and which shameful. Gabor probably wouldn't be able to formulate such a critical view if the story weren't set in the Stalinist past, whose depradations have been acknowledged officially. Nevertheless, the indictment seems peculiarly fundamental by being set in the beginning when a party hierarchy and discipline are observed in the process of creation: It's readily apparent that the structure relies on malicious, corrupt calculations.
Moreover, Vera doesn't have to betray herself. She has enough choice to be regarded as a tragic heroine. The two women who become her closest companions (and role models) at the school are veterans of the Resistance embodying opposite responses to adversity -- Eva Szabo as the hearty, carnal, forthright Maria and Erzsi Pasztor as the melancholy, priggish, devious Anna Trajan.
Vera could follow Maria's example. It would simply cost her a trusted niche in the party family, a point underlined by the closing image of the film. Even Anna, confirmed party tattletale that she is, seems stunned and appalled when Vera rises at the climactic "self-criticism" meeting required of the class and earns top honors by sacrificing her happiness and integrity.
Vera's horrifying confession is all the more effective for recalling the gesture that first won her party approval at the hospital. The second time around her confessional impulse has become a destructive, enslaving act of folly.
Although the forces that act upon Vera seem vividly accounted for, the heroine herself remains a little elusive. I'm not certain that every step necessary to rationalize her ultimate self-betrayal has been taken, although the idea of the character is never obscure and its thematic significance remains undiminished.
Papp's exquisite photogenic qualities may even be a liability in one respect. They tend to reinforce the symbolic significance of the character, evident in her very name. It's possible that both the original author and the filmmaker associated Vera with their country itself, with fresh prospects nullified by dehumanizing political policies in the aftermath of World War ii.
Perhaps the character can be accused of wobbling a bit between idealized and realistic identities. However, it's the kind of wobble that would only be perceptible in the context of an unusually thoughtful and rigorous piece of filmmaking. "Angi Vera" is strong, timely, dramatic medicine, and a welcome rebuke to everything represented by the lingering clownish spirits of films like "Roller Boogie," "The Jerk" and "1941."