Szinbad – beauty in the profoundly ugly from Zoltan Huzarik

I watched an amazing film today.   Amazing because it was a combination of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen – so exquisite it brough tears to my eyes with its beauty – and the dullest character I have ever seen.  I swear, if this man had sat and stared at a wall for 2 hours, it would have been ten times more interesting.

Zoltan Huszarik’s Szinbad is a remarkable film for its combination of these beauty’s. It is the story of a man at the end of his life. His horse and cart carries him back to his wife, who takes his coat and then sends his corpse on its way to be buried by one of his mistresses. This sets the scene for a series of flashbacks and a sprawling tale of a man who pretty much never matured out of his Oedipal stage, and therefore simply never developed a proper character interesting enough to tell his tale. It is also the story of the brainless women stupid enough to get involved with him. Szinbad is dull as dishwater all the way through, and the narrative and the filming completely support this perspective of him. The women he loves and leaves are each beautiful in their own way, but absolute carbon copies of each other, equally as dull, with no life outside of a longing for some anonymous male to take responsibility for their unhappiness.

Initially, this film occurs as a misogynistic projection of the immature male fantasy  – however on closer inspection, it becomes clear Huszarik and Probably Gyula Krudy upon whose collection of short stories the book is based (although i haven’t read this book so I can’t be 100% sure) that Szindbad is a pathetic and unhappy creature, and so are the women in his life. The images and the story-line are tinged with romance (after all this male fantasy is the equivalent of the female romance novel) but there are horrible worldly details – women who commit suicide, an idle and therefore penniless existence, desperately unhappy husbands – that dot the landscape of this silly man’s life and impinge on the glory of the way Szinbad would like to be viewing his existence.

It reminded me of an Eric Rhomer film in a lot of ways. On the surface he appears to be telling the ‘real’ story of the interactions between men and women, but underneath he reveals unfulfilled longings, and a pathos that exists when people follow a projected fantasy that is an attempt to escape reality.

What is astonishingly clever here is the use of the Sinbad character.  Sinbad is a master navigator, his seven voyages best by monsters and supernatural beings, has been one of the fundamental archetypes of global culture since the name first emerged in ancient Middle eastern Literature , most famously via the Thousand and One Nights. Like Aladin and Ali Baba, his legend has morphed into a thousand and one other forms – stories for children and adults – comic strips, video games, and countless films. Sinbad is the ultimate projection of the phallus and the male fantasy of the forward thrust out into the world.

There is nothing more cowardly, however than Szinbad, and while I think there is an attempt at irony in his naming, it is more of a commentary on the difference between the fantasy and the reality of the fantasy. Apparently Huszarik originally wanted the Italian Marcel Mastrioni to play the role – the ultimate projected male fantasy of Felini’s but they couldn’t afford him. They got Zoltán Latinovits who is brilliant as the way too handsome but perpetually miserable Szindbad. Although he is incredible in the role, it would have been amusing to see Mastrioni play this part.

But really, the star of this film is Sandor Sara.

Sándor Sára may not exactly be a name on every film buffs lips, but that is all the more reason to hold a retrospective of his work. For Sára has worked behind the camera with many of the great names in Hungarian cinematography, such as István Szabó, István Gaál and Ferenc Kósa, and took the visual appeal of their films to new aesthetic heights. When he started work in the 1960s, he demanded far more creative freedom as director of photography than was usual at the time and proved his visual genius in a range of styles and visual textures, but perhaps most memorably in lyrical evocations of landscape – especially in long shot.

At the same time, he also emerged as a director in his own right and – in seeming direct contradiction to the highly poetic nature of his eye – made highly politicised films that were critical of the Communist regime. Moreover, he also made documentaries, whose ability to confront the viewer with stark reality seems strangely paradoxical when placed next to his more lyrical pieces of cinematography.

One of his earlier films  was Zoltan Huszárik’s Szindbád , for which Sára acted as director of photography. By this time, Sára was already a formidable name in Hungarian film circles, and could take credit for the cinematography of István Gaál’s Sodrásban (Current, 1963), Ferenc Kósa’sTízezer nap (Ten Thousand Suns, 1965), and István Szabó’s Apa (Father, 1966) – works which already showed an astonishing control of the visual medium.  Introducing the film at the Riverside, film historian and critic David Robinson hypothesized that this was the film’s first showing in London and the film had largely been withheld from international distribution at the time, because the Hungarians simply believed it was too Hungarian for other countries to appreciate.

Szindbád certainly is a very Hungarian film.  The camera’s eye leaps from the main “narrative” to a series of memories as a chain of associations is sparked off – initials carved on a tree, water dripping from a wooden roof, marks left by two pairs of ice-skates on a snow-covered icy lake, a dress being unbuttoned, a flower pressed between the pages of an old book, a wisp of hair. Often the images – each of exquisite beauty – are intercut so rapidly that there is barely time to take them in. The resulting effect is a kaleidoscope for the senses – the feeling that everything in life must be experienced.

Despite the overwhelming ‘Hungarian-ness’ of this film, I enjoyed it greatly.  get a hold of it as fast as you can. I’d love to hear your thoughts.