review by Dan Lybarger, 30 June 2000

With his latest movie, Sunshine, Hungarian director István Szabó compresses almost an entire century into three hours. In recounting how the last 100 years have affected the people of Szabó’s homeland, Sunshine juggles a multitude of ideologies, people and events. At times Szabó’s control slips because of the immense burden, but he still manages to present a convincing story of tragedy and hope.

Szabó and co-screenwriter Israel Horovitz frame their microcosmic view of the 20th century through the fortunes of the Sonneschein family. Throughout three generations, the Jewish family witnesses the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the horrors of World War II and the atrocities committed in the name of Communism. Despite the bleak environment that surrounds them, the Sonnescheins become wealthy and occasionally powerful.

They originate as peasant tavern keepers, but Emmanuel Sonneschein (David de Keyser) becomes a tycoon when he brings his family’s medicinal elixir recipe with him to Budapest. Called "a taste of sunshine," the drink brings in enough money to send his son Gustave (James Frain, Where the Heart Is) to medical school and his other child Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes) to study law. Although both have promising careers, Emmanuel warns his sons not to aim too high for fear of rousing anti-Semitism. Ignatz ignores his father’s advice and climbs the bureaucratic ladder. He even changes his surname to ‘Sors’ lest anyone discover that he’s a Jew. Ignatz further strains his relations with his father by falling in love with and then marrying his cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle). He also alienates Gustave (who’s nursing a crush on Valerie) by embracing the Empire while Gustave has been an active Communist.

The family’s turmoil is reflected in the outside world. World War I destroys the old Empire, and Ignatz’s sons István (Mark Strong) and Adam (Fiennes, again) struggle to adapt to the new hostile environment. To combat some of the rampant anti-Semitism, Adam learns and then masters fencing. Unable to compete at the highest levels because of his religion, Adam and his brother convert to Catholicism. This move and his single-minded determination make him an Olympic contender. Nonetheless, there is little that he can do to stop the Nazi influence over the new Hungarian government.

When World War II shifts power to the Communists, Adam’s son Ivan (Fiennes) becomes one the government’s most feared interrogators. At first, Ivan is eager to punish the former fascists. But he has second thoughts when the authorities begin blaming Jews for recent unrest and force him to go after his old mentor (William Hurt).

Although cinematographer Lajos Koltai shoots most of Sunshine in a warm, amber glow, no one can accuse Szabó of looking back with rose-colored glasses. He views all of the ideologies that have dominated Hungary in the last 100 years with contempt. For example, the plight of the poor moves Gustave to become a Communist, but he’s willing to shed blood for the cause. Thankfully, Szabó’s cynical recollections don’t lead the film into nihilism. The director avoids addressing the last thirty years, so Szabó may be hoping that future generations of Hungarians, as well as the rest of the world, can learn from the mistakes of the past.

With all of the ideas running through Sunshine, it’s no wonder that the movie sometimes feels more like a debate than a film. Many times the nightmare of totalitarian rule seems too abstract. Szabó sometimes reduces the factors that led to violent uprisings to mere shouting matches. Even some of the love affairs that pepper the story seem more a matter of philosophy than passion.

Fortunately, Szabó’s cast is up to the challenge. Fiennes gives all three generations of Sonnenscheins an eerie continuity, as if the same character inhabited the bodies of all three men. He’s especially effective as Ivan, giving his scariest performance since Schindler’s List. Sunshine is at its most involving when Szabó abandons the dialogue and lets the actors’ faces tell the story. Sunshine may not reach the stratosphere the way Szabó’s previous movies Mephisto and Meeting Venus do. Nonetheless, his mammoth intentions are as welcome and refreshing as the rays of the sun.

Directed by:
István Szabó

Ralph Fiennes
Rosemary Harris
Rachel Weisz
Jennifer Ehle
Molly Parker
Deborah Unger
William Hurt
James Frain
John Neville
Miriam Margolyes
David De Keyser
Balazs Hantos
Adam László
Kathleen Gati
Vilmos Kun
Jácint Juhász
Flóra Kádár
Mari Töröcsik
Katja Studt
Kati Sólyom
Joachim Bissmeier
Tamás Fodor
Tamás Raj
Bill Paterson

Written by:
Israel Horovitz
István Szabó




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