review by Dan Lybarger, 30 June 2000
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
David De Keyser