Zsolt Kezdi-Kovacs' hair is swept up into tidal waves on either side of a center parting, and the worn pants and mismatched jacket suggest a mature Mickey Rooney playing an aging copy boy in a remake of "His Girl Friday."
"Actually, when I was a child, we saw almost nothing from Hollywood," says the 48-year-old Hungarian filmmaker of his early years. "I was fascinated by the Hollywood just after the war -- 'Grapes of Wrath,' Howard Hawks' 'Air Force' and, of course, westerns. Then there was the [Soviet] rupture in Hungary and the Cold War prevented us from seeing almost any American films . . . I was more influenced by the Italian films by de Sica, Visconti, and the French films -- Truffaut, Godard and Resnais."
Touring with a Hungarian film festival, which runs through tomorrow at the West End Circle, Kezdi-Kovacs speaks tonight at the 8 p.m. screening of his controversial 1982 film, "Forbidden Relations," at American University's Wechsler Theatre (which is open free to the public). Then the festival, cosponsored by the U.S. Information Agency and the Hungarian government, moves on to several other cities including Chicago and Los Angeles.
Sitting in a back-aching standard office chair at the American University's Media Center, he does not shift position. Only the hands, clasped to stop shaking, betray a slight nervousness. The eyes glaze over a little when he tells his anecdotes and he looks like the quiet, now grown-up, dreamer who sat in the back row of math class, looking constantly out the window for skylarks. As a filmmaker, Kezdi-Kovacs is perfectly employed.
After quitting a dead-end job with a telephone factory, he enrolled at the film academy to learn to become a film director. With colleagues, he formed the Bela Belazs Studio, and the group's short films attracted the interest of Henri Langlois, the esteemed chef of the Cine'mate que Franc,aise. He was director Miklo's Jancso''s assistant from 1963 to 1969, and then launched into his own features.
He is "very happy to make films" and quick to assert the artistic freedom allowed himself and his colleagues in Hungary, denying he is required to make Comrade-Meets-Tractor movies. "If I submit a script and it's not obviously hostile, it's okay. You can make practically whatever you like.
"A typical film budget in Hungary is 10 million forints, which is about $200,000, but, because film costs are so much lower [in Hungary], it doesn't even translate . . . and if you show films [that] will be sold in foreign countries or are important politically, you can receive four or five times that amount."
There was at least one exception to this in his career. When he submitted a screenplay for a period movie to his film council, he was asked to make instead a modern movie about the plight of Hungarian villagers moving into towns and having to abandon their traditional life. Ironically, the result, "When Joseph Speaks," turned out to be his most successful film internationally, winning him a Hugo Award at the Chicago Film festival and the Grand Prix at the French Hye res festival.
"Forbidden Relations," to be shown tonight, tackles a tough subject, that of incest. The film was Hungary's official entry at Cannes in 1982, but has yet to enjoy an official run in the United States. Based on a true story, the film concerns a man who falls in love with a woman he later finds out is his half-sister. In spite of this knowledge, the affair flourishes and produces children. And although they must go to jail for producing each child, they only return to have more. By the end of the film, they have three children. The real-life couple had five ("I could only do so much in two hours").
"I was interested in this story because I had the feeling of a Greek tragedy in everyday life. When I was writing the script, I got a letter from the man telling me the woman had just gone to jail again. They had had another baby. It was terrible for me being free, writing the story, knowing the real character is in jail. 'Why did they do it?' Because they loved children. They said, 'We love each other and we love children.'
"What was also interesting both in the film and reality was what I didn't expect -- the community behaved exactly the opposite from what I expected. They did everything according to the law, but nothing more. They supported them."