There have been few female artists of note in Hungary: the writer Magda Szabó certainly, the poet Ágnes Nemes of course, and without doubt the film director Márta Mészáros. Indeed there is a case to be made that she is one of the greatest female film directors of all time. Although most well-known for her ‘Diary’ films, Adoption (Örökbefogadás) is a perfectly formed example of her craft.It tells the story of Kata, a women in early forties and her desire to have a child, or more broadly, to experience love and motherhood. Kata, who lives in a village by the Danube, is having an affair with a married man, Joska. She wants to have a child with Joska, but he refuses saying, “It would mess up everything.” Kata befriends Anna, a rebellious teenager from a local state institution for girls. Anna wants to use Kata’s place for clandestine meetings with her boyfriend, Sanyi. Kata and Anna develop the sort of friendship that only a mother and daughter can have. So much so, that Kata intercedes with Anna’s family, who appear to have abandoned her, or at least, shown her no love or affection, so she can marry Sanyi. Kata continues to pursue her desire to have a child and ends up adopting. In the final scene, she is shown, baby her in arms, rushing to catch a bus. Time is running out, the film seems to say, but the image of a mother clutching her new baby suggests there is hope indeed.
This is very much a film about women, their feelings and their strength of character. Kata and Anna are shown as strong characters, or at least as individuals with a sense of purpose, a need to love and be loved, but without any sense of perfection. They are, as it were, multi-dimensional. Conversely the men in the film, Joska, Anna’s boyfriend Sanyi, the men who try to chat up Kata and Anna at a restaurant, are portrayed almost in caricature: selfish, unloving and predatory. I do not mean to imply that Mészáros portrays them in a judgemental way, they simply seem to exist on a different level.In one pivotal scene Anna and Sanyi are shown dancing at their wedding reception. There is no dialgue, just the music playing. The camera shows Anna and her friends from the Institute, Anna appears to be comforting them, as if saying goodbye to them. We see them talking, wordlessly, as only the music soundtrack can be heard. Sanyi is shown trying to kiss Anna, as if jealous of her deep affection for her friends; she resists and pushes him away, and, in rather typical male fashion, storms out. The camera lingers on Anna, her eyes downcast, her face sad and reflective. It is almost the moment she falls out of being ‘in love’ and now confronts the choice is she has made: the institution of marriage.
Implicit in Mészáros’ portrayal of men is a critique of male-dominated Hungarian society and indeed of the instituions of contemporary, mid-1970’s Communist Hungary. Indeed, the film is surprisingly subversive for its time. But like many film-makers of that era Mészáros knows the limits of what is acceptable; all the criticisms are implied an shown on a human level, in everyday life of individuals struggling with their lives.
In many ways, this is a small film. By that I mean, there are no grand scenes, no great issues debated by the characters, no purpose-built sets, no soaring panoramic shots, no artifice, if you will. Shot in black and white it is very much in the ‘naturalist’ tradition of Hungarian film-making. The village where most of the film takes place, could be anywhere in Hungary and the interiors any house or apartment in the 1970s Hungary. Most of the actors seem non-professional. All of this lends the film an intimate, everyday feel, as if one really is observing the lives of everyday people. ‘Real’ is an overused term, but this film does indeed come across as being ‘real’ and that is a great part of its strength and quality. Like all good films, you do end up sympathising and caring what happens to the main characters – or at least the female ones!
Adoption went on to win critical acclaim beyond Hungary, winning awards at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in 1975. Mészáros went on the make her ‘Diary’ films, only one of which, Napló gyermekeimnek (Diary for My Children, 1982), is available with English sub-titles. It is crying shame that the other two, Napló szerelmeimnek (Diary for my Loves, 1987) and Napló apámnak, anyámnak (Diary for my Father and Mother, 1990), are not (yet?) similarly available to a wider audience.
As an aside, the cinematography of Adoption was shared between Mészáros and Lajos Kolati, who directed Fateless.The life story of Mészáros is itself worthy of a film: Born in 1931 she moved to Russia a few later with her family who were, in the parlance of the time, “fellow-travellers”. However like so many others found the experience anything other than a socialist paradise. Forced to move to Central Asian republic of Kyrsyzstan, the family endured much hardship; her mother died in childbirth and her father disappeared into the gulag. It would be over sixty years later in 1999 that awful truth was confirmed and Mészáros learnt that her father had been executed. She turned this experience into a film when she returned to Kyrsyzstan in 2000 and made Kisvilma – Az utolsó napló (Little Vilma – The Last Diary).
Mészáros continues to work even today. Like all great artists, working in film is her life and when asked when she would retire from film-making, she replied, raising her hands in the air, “All depends on God”. We can be thankful that this great Hungarian female artist continues to practice her craft.