Sunday, July 25, 2010

Family Nest (1979)****

Bela Tarr’s dispiriting look at the effects of collectivism on domestic life firmly establishes 1970s Budapest as a banana belt of bleakness. We peer into the lives of the harried and quite grumpy Kovacs family, whose government issued apartment is so overrun with family, in-laws and assorted runny-nosed kids that the modest flat often resembles the crowded stateroom from Night at the Opera. But the principles do not tumble out in a rousing comic catharsis, but rather the pressures of cramped living build until we see a young family severely damaged and possibly destroyed.

Family patriarch Gabor Kun – in an amazing performance – holds court at his family’s tiny kitchen table, and loudly issues ill-formed opinions on everything from the virtues of watery soup to the deficient child rearing abilities of his long suffering daughter-in-law Irén (Laszlone Horvath). When his alcohol-addled son Laci (Laszlo Horvath) unexpectedly returns from a shortened stint in the military, all is celebratory sweetness at the Kovacs’ until Dad begins to wonder what his son did to get out of his military obligation early… and a slow and slanderous emotional snowball forms that drives the remainder of the film.

While Laci and his ne’er-do-well brother Gabor reenact shocking aspects of their military service with a family friend, Dad decides it’s finally time to rid the cramped apartment of Iren. In a malicious bit of brainwashing, Kun convinces his son that Iren engaged in serious hanky-panky during his enlistment, and that a woman of such low morals is unworthy to breathe the rarified air of the family’s dinky digs. Irén trudges to the housing authority and, in a riveting scene, pleads with a humorless bureaucrat for an apartment of her own. But the Kafka-esque vagaries of Soviet housing policy prove to be too much for the young woman, who leaves with the bitter realization that she is powerless against her judgmental and hypocritical father-in-law; a man set on ruining the little joy her meager existence affords.


Like the Kovacs apartment, Family Nest bursts at the seams with manipulation, vengeance and the dark edges of generational conflict. While its depictions of everyday life are simple to the point of milky blandness, the characterizations are so effective and believable we sense every churning layer of strife. Eventually our suspicions are confirmed as revelations about the true nature of this family come fast and furious in the final act. There are times when you want to reach through the screen and throttle Gabor Kun, and you’ll want to offer your spare room to Iren and daughter Kristi. But there are no spare rooms in the Budapest of 1977, as the totalitarian regime has learned that doling out living space is a wonderful means of controlling a weary populace.


The film makes clear that oppression can be used as a wedge to drive families apart, and the ensuing hopelessness magnifies small issues into the raging and unsolvable. There is no escape from Iren’s toxic father-in-law, and her attempts to build a life apart from his influence brand her as anti-social and rebellious; two character traits no communist society will endure.


It would be a dozen years before the people of Hungary would taste the sweetness of freedom, but here Bela Tarr bravely shows us the slow boil of revolution and the dire reality of life under an unsustainable system. By cleverly disguising it as a small story of familial strife, Tarr managed to create a grimy and powerful metaphor of the human spirit, and gave a poignant yet resilient face to the huddled masses.

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1 comment:

Ben Russell said...

Loved your review. I just saw The Family Nest. It's a pretty amazing film :)

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