Sunday, May 17, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Sunshine (István Szabó)

This is another edition to my posts that revisit 1999. The 'Forgotten Films' will be featured every Monday until I'm done with the list; then I'll be moving on the conclusion of this project, the best films of 1999. Last week I took a look at the forgotten, painful family drama The War Zone, directed by Tim Roth. This week it's István Szabó's saga Sunshine. Next week look for Beyond the Mat, a documentary about pro wrestling. If you liked this years The Wrestler, then you'll want to check this out next Monday.

István Szabó's Sunshine is unapologetic, melodramatic family saga. It has the sweep of an epic that would be more at home in the 50's or 60's, not at the postmodern, cynical turn of the century; it also is one of the rare films that boasts a performance so good that you're likely to forget that the three hour film is never quite the masterpiece it so badly wants to be. At times the film feels more like Masterpiece Theater than large scale epic, but the always fabulous Ralph Fiennes (turning in his second great performance of 1999, the other being his role in Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair) turns in one of the finest performances of 1999, and he does it playing three different characters.

The film follows three generations of the Sonnenschein's, a Jewish family living in Hungary. Fiennes plays all three patriarchs of the family -- spanning three generations -- beginning with Ignatz, a judge who rises to prominence only to be burdened and torn by the fact that his government has sanctioned anti-Jewish laws. Ignatz is trusted as a judge, but the Chief Justice advises him to change his name to something more Hungarian. Ignatz obliges and he and his sister Valerie (oh, who is also his lover and future wife) and brother Gustav change their last names to Sors; which means prophecy, fate, destiny, task. There is a certain kind of glee as the kids look for their new name, as if they will be able to fulfill duties not associated with being Jewish. This, however, sets off a chain reaction that reverberates through all three generations of the (now) Sors family.

Ignatz is so trusted that he becomes part of the ruling class, something his father doesn't necessarily approve of. Meanwhile, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignatz get married and have a son Adam; however, with more trust from the ruling class, Ignatz is becoming a different man, abandoning not just his name but his faith and family, too. Valerie divorces him and in a scene of tremendous understated power tells him in a matter-of-fact way that she is divorcing him, but that she'll always be his sister. And, in true grandiose, epic form, Valerie utters the words "neither my husband nor my brother can give me what I need. I'll suffocate without love in my life." What follows is a brutal scene of pathetic proportions as Ignatz can't deal with the dual loss of his wife and sister.

The second hour of the film focuses more on the second generation of Sors, with Igntaz deteriorating into a dreadful, hate-filled man. Istvan and Adam are the two sons, and the film follows closely Adam's life as an all-world fencer who wants to join the Officer's Club. However, Jewish people are not allowed in the club, so like his father, he is faced with a dilemma of what to do about his name and the faith that comes attached to it. While his father changed the name, the reverberations from that act are felt in the actions Adam takes to further distance the Sors' from the Sonnenschein's; he must convert to Christianity in order to join the club. Adam acquiesces and is soon made captain of the Olympic fencing team that goes on to win a gold medal. Adam enjoys the pleasures of success as he has an affair with Gretta (a young Rachel Weisz), who again, like Valerie in the first generation, spouts lines like "love is all there is" and "I won't stop loving you because love doesn't stop." This is truly an epic film about love that is interested in all of the cliches, good and bad. Adam's fame, however, brutally and horrifically comes crashing down as he is heritage is found out and he is taken to an interment camp.

The internment camp scene is one of the most powerful I've seen in a film. I forgot about the way Adam meets his end in which he refuses to admit his name is Sonnenschein (all because of a medal) and avows that he is Adam Sorn Olympic Gold Medalist. This only infuriates the head guard who then strips him naked in the cold of winter and hang him from a tree, they then proceed to spray him with a hose until a thick layer of ice covers him and he can no longer breath. It's one of the most powerful images in the film; not just because of the horrors it makes you realize went on, and the incredibly ridiculous intolerance that was rampant in Europe at the time, but also, in the film's context, the fact that Adam was so attached to his medal, to his fame as an Olympic fencer -- the status of it all -- that he refused to acknowledge is heritage. A name is something quite important to Adam, but only the name Sors, not the Sonnenschein family name. It's a powerful, powerful sequence.

The third hour, and final story arc, follows Adam's son Ivan, who comes home weeping, informing his mother (now being played by the great Rosemarie Harris) of Adam's death. Ivan is urged to join the police by Gustav, who has returned, too. William Hurt plays Andor Knorr, the captain who brainwashing young Ivan into getting all of the "rat bastard traders"; the Hungarian's who turned on their own kind. This leads to a manhunt of anyone who may have been artistic, individualistic, or anyone who does not have "worker's hands" -- these are the people that threaten the state. Ivan, who has shown that he easily susceptible to authoritative voices, is then asked to bring down Knorr who is photographed with "the traders" and wanted for Zionist Conspiracy. Ivan must lead the investigation and interrogate his boss.

Whew. That's a lot of exposition about the film. Sunshine has a lot of ideas floating around in its head, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. One of the most interesting things about the film is how Igntaz' decision to change his name created a son who was too stubborn to admit who he really was, and and a grandson who was too weak to think for himself and decipher right from wrong. Oh, Ivan does have an epiphany by the end of the film, one that comes in the form of realizing that "Jew" and "Worker" were the same derogatory term whioch leads to a chain of events that bring the story full circle, where Ivan is asking to change his name back to Sonnenschein; there's even a "Rosebud" type moment that film ends on as Ivan can't locate one important possession admists all of his grandfather's things as he is clearing how the Sonnenschein house.

The nuances of Fiennes' performance is really what makes this giant machine run. Sometimes the journey is a bit clunky and overwrought, but Fiennes always portrays the three generation of Sors' with a subtle difference that, without the aide of donning make up, makes them easily identifiable. Credit goes to director Szabó, too for not making the film over complicated; sure, it may drag at in the final act, but the information and ideas are almost always intriguing, and it's interesting to see all of Central Europe's modern "tragic misadventures", as a narrating Ivan puts it, covered with such scope; most directors would just want to focus on the love stories or the internment camps, but Szabó wisely balances them all so that you never feel like you're in too familiar of territory.

Sunshine is forgotten most likely because of the patience it takes for one to sit through it. It's a slow moving film, with little to offer for those with a short attention span. The love stories are pretty generic, weepy melodramatic moments found in most epics, but the second hour of the film is phenomenal and powerful, and of course, at the center of it all, you have what it probably the best performance of 1999 by Ralph Fiennes. It's worth checking out for his performance alone.


  1. Kevin -

    Very fine post. I saw this movie years ago, in the theatre when it was first released. I liked it very much then, but had forgotten a lot of it,so your post was a welcome remembrance. It really is the kind of old-fashioned epic that sadly isn't much done anymore.

  2. Pat:

    Thanks for the kind words. The movie is a fantastic reminder of how fun the epic film is; it's so easy top succumb to the grandeur -- and Fiennes' performance is up to such a task. I remember seeing this in the theater, too, and being blown away by it. Time has eased some of those initial feelings, but it's a forgotten gem from 1999. I hope to see you around here again. Thanks again for the kind comments.

  3. Yes, I do like this film too, and you have written a descriptive and passionate review. I will have more to say on this over the weekend. I read this a few days ago, but was unable to respond. I will return.

  4. Sam:

    It's good to hear you're a fan of this fine film. I look forward to you coming back and sharing more thoughts about the film.