The sense of time re-created in the remarkable new Hungarian movie "Time Stands Still" is always too fluid to confirm the title. It doesn't even stand still when director Peter Gothar and cinematographer Lajos Koltai elect to freeze their extremely moody imagery into literal stillness. They evoke a melancholy vision of a haunted, inescapable past in muted color schemes that seep into the compositions after an epilogue played out in a deeply tinted, expressionistic blue.
In fact, "Time Stands Still," which opens today at the Inner Circle, might be described as a uniquely haunting expression of the blues, pictorially as well as thematically.
The characters are immersed in a past overshadowed by a specific political tragedy, the failure of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. This patriotic calamity has imposed a peculiarly disillusioning aftermath. The adults, wary of further misadventure and misjudgment, are cautiously picking up the pieces, trying to rehabilitate themselves. The younger generation, the main focus of dramatic interest for Gothar and cowriter Geza Beremenyi, is torn by the contradictory nature of the period stretching indefinitely ahead. On one hand, the kids are absorbing the cautionary messages of grown-ups who've learned the hard way the wisdom of cooling it and keeping noses clean; on the other, they're young, brimming with impulsive energy, romantic longing and ambitious claims on a future that seems severely restricted if not utterly foreclosed.
A lyric lament for the young people destined to go astray in such a perplexing, troubled setting, "Time Stands Still" finds a recurring melodic theme in one of the pop songs from the West that were permitted to begin invading the culture in the early 1960s: "You Are My Destiny." This rock song carries an ironically smoldering torch for the kids--referring as much to the country and a blighted national heritage as any specific sweetheart. Indeed, the boldly beckoning teen-age Lorelei who eludes the blundering, timorous protagonist Dini--Aniko Ivan as ever-pouting Magda, a high school girl who Wants It Now--also suggests an ominous sort of "destiny," indistinguishable in the long run from enslavement to The System.
It's Dini's apparent destiny to become one of the superfluous kids of his generation, shortchanged in either the short or long run.
The boys in "Time Stands Still" are left without reliable or encouraging masculine role models for different reasons than the potentially delinquent or misguided boys found in American movies--Dini's father joined a mass exodus of political defectors, and the men who remain have scant cause to view the future with optimism--but the consequences are painfully similar.
The prologue of "Time Stands Still" depicts the night Dini's father (Pal Hetenyi) abandons the abortive revolution and then his family, taking solitary flight after his wife (Agi Kakassy) and eldest son Gabor refuse to accompany him. Dini is too young to be offered a choice. Gothar freezes the image of the mother and the two boys in a window frame, gazing down at an inky street littered with rubble and illuminated dimly by bonfires. The composition dissolves into an identical composition seven years later. The faces at the window are older, and the blue tint gradually gives way to flesh tones, but relatively little color or sunlight ever filter back into the environment inhabited by this family.
A ghost from the past returns to take up residence with the family--not the father, who evidently reached the United States but hasn't been heard from in years, but one of his old comrades, Laci (Lajos Oze), newly paroled and intent on watching his step. He's acquired a job in the bureaucracy, but he suspects that even a blameless rehabilitation will be no guarantee of job security in the future.
As a matter of fact, the boys are paying certain social costs because of their father's past. Gabor (Henrik Pauer), who wants a medical career, may be denied entry to medical school. Dini (Istvan Znamenak), now in his early teens, is subject to both random hostility from some kids and suspicious solicitude from some teachers.
Dramatically, the film may pay a price for concentrating on a boy who ultimately seems a victim of his own passivity and ignorance as much as anything else. You can't help feeling that there's less potential protagonist in Dini than in just about every other character.
But the film succeeds in conjuring up a particular time and condition of adolescent frustration that remain emotionally compelling. Gothar and Koltai (who was also the cinematographer on "Angi Vera" and "Mephisto") are lyrical spellbinders. They sustain perhaps the most seductive, plaintive mood of youthful romantic masochism since James Dean was a misunderstood kid and Ingmar Bergman a promising young director.