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Foreign Oscar Entry Review: The Notebook (A Nagy Füzet)

Reviews
by Carlos Aguilar
December 3, 2013 6:00 PM
1 Comment
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János Szász' 'The Notebook'

The Notebook, Hungary''s Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet. International Sales Agent: Beta Cinema


Survival is defined as the ability to remain alive and persevere through all the obstacles that can halt one’ existence. It could be said that most of the endeavors an individual undertakes are solely to prolong life. During wartime, this task becomes exponentially more difficult and requires the skills, both mental and physical, to carry on as inhumane atrocities become quotidian occurrences. Perhaps the most horrendous case in history is the social decay that prevailed during World War II, more prominently in countries under Nazi control, which completely dehumanized those targeted by the Reich as well as the bystanders forced to reevaluate the value of a person’s life, rendering many as subhuman. In his ambitious and terrific film The Notebook, director János Szász approaches this instinctive resilience by way of an unbreakable bond between two twin brothers and their assertiveness to persist and overcome the extreme austerity they encounter.

Considering his twin sons a conspicuous liability, a Hungarian soldier and his wife agree they must hide them with their grandmother in a remote village on the outskirts of the country. Before parting with them, the father entrusts them with a mission, he provides them with a notebook in which they must write an account of everything that happens to them. Taking this assignment to heart, the boys (played by András Gyémánt and László Gyémánt) begin to write about their experiences, not only in text but also with visuals, as a scrapbook of sorts. Spiteful due to her daughter’s abandonment, the grandmother (Piroska Molnár) refuses to care for the children. She refers to them as bastards, hits them, and treats them cruelly even as they work for her around her farm. The twins understand that hardships will only worsen and they must be prepared. As instructed by their mother, they keep their studies up aided by an old encyclopedia and a bible, yet, the greatest lessons come from their terrible fate. Crushing any trace of childish mentality or oversensitivity by means of pain, the boys begin to train themselves to bear incredible suffering. They fight each other to increase their tolerance to physical pain, they starve to be ready when winter hits, and they deny themselves any emotion towards their mother’s letters.

Along the way they meet varied characters that test their compassion, and others who shatter any remains of innocence: a friendly Nazi officer that ends up saving their lives, to a Jewish shoemaker who generously gives them boots, a sexually deviant priest, a disfigured thief, and a flirtatious xenophobic woman. Eventually the malevolent grandmother comprehends the pair are the only reason she is still alive and warms up to them, although she never verbalizes it. When the boys’ parents finally return for them, they are not the same. Their perception of family is now less romanticized. Having their fraternal love as only source of reassurance, their parents have now become a burden in their goal to survive.

In what is the most psychologically intriguing element of the story, the twins undergo a self-imposed journey to desensitize themselves and by doing so their moral convictions must adapt to the situations with which they are confronted. They cannot afford to second-guess their illicit practices to obtain food or other much needed supplies. For them, there is logic in their every move, which is still dictated by the convictions imposed by their parents. Righteously they believe evil must be punished, and they are sympathetic towards those who, like them, are trying not to perish. Disturbingly comfortable with killing animals, their pragmatism allows them to see murder simultaneously as a benevolent act of kindness for those unfit to keep going, and as the ultimate tactic to protect themselves. After mastering all sorts of emotional and bodily deprivation, their only weakness becomes their dependence on each other. András and László Gyémánt give equally courageous performances entirely removing any expression of joy from their faces. It is a saddening bravery that propels them to behave in such a cold-hearted manner. Contained, vigilant, and ferocious against the world these young actors defy their age and truly astound in their first screen appearance.

With an immaculate production the film is visually captivating. Photographing a bleak rural charm Christian Berger constructs an elegant depiction of a terrible time that in spite of the turmoil around, emphasizes the boys’ experiences via their drawings, souvenirs, and mismatched pictures which becomes their collective, truthful, memory. Deserving of even greater accolade is director János Szász who elicits spectacularly raw performances out of his entire cast, and whose vision creates a film that provides powerful and honest insight into a passage of history which has been revised repeatedly. As a world-class filmmaker he seeks to explore humanity through his art, delivering cinematic philosophy. Savagely beautiful, The Notebook can be summarized as a darkly poetic period piece about children for adults.

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1 Comment

  • Michael Medeiros | December 15, 2013 2:52 PMReply

    Haven't seen the film but have much admiration for Janos. Worked with him in a challenging theater piece this past summer, The Master & Margarita. He's a visionary director.

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