English Title: Love
Original Title: Szerelem
Country of Origin: Hungary
Studio: MAFILM Stúdió 1, Hungarofilm
Director: Károly Makk
Screenplay: Péter Bacsó
Cinematographer: János Tóth
Editor: György Sívó
Runtime: 88 minutes
Genre: Drama/Art Cinema
Volume: East European
János has been imprisoned by the Communist Party on charges of being a dissident while his wife Luca is caring for his ailing mother. Luca regularly visits her mother-in-law, but withholds the truth about her son János being a political prisoner, explaining his absence by inventing elaborate stories of János’ success in America as a famous film director. She writes letters purporting to be from János in order to appease the old woman who is on her deathbed. These letters trigger many memories and reminiscences that sustain the old women while she awaits the return of her son. When János is unexpectedly released from prison he returns to find his world considerably changed.
Szerelem/Love is based on two short stories by Hungarian writer Tibor Déry, and is a simple yet powerful film elegantly told. Though the film’s exact time period is not explicit, it does seem to take place some time shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. The old mother, played superbly by Lili Darvas (who was at one time married to the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnár) is bed-ridden and close to death, and believes that her dear son is a famous film-maker in America. What she doesn’t know is that he is languishing in a communist prison as a dissident, and that her daughter-in-law Luca is writing letters purporting to be from János.
The majority of the film consists of flashbacks and quick cuts that signal memories, fleeting glimpses of reminiscence or objects that evoke moods and feelings of the old mother, usually triggered by a word or two in the letter supposedly written by her son János. Frequently the old women recollects in moments of daydreaming her own self as a beautiful young woman during the halcyon days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at other times moments from the childhood of János and her other son, the deceased Gyuri. The editing by György Sívó (who also edited István Szabó’s remarkable film Szerelmesfilm/Lovefilm  a year earlier) emphasizes the psychological dimension of the mother in a wonderfully rhythmical way, with quick cuts to and from objects; where moods and impressions are evoked by the camera focusing on specific details, like drops of rain, photographs, a book or the texture of old wooden furniture, revealing a personal significance that augments the depth and lyricism of the film. One example is when Luca mentions the old woman’s second son Gyuri: there is a quick cut to a young boy, then to an explosion, another cut to the same young boy, then a dead soldier lying in a trench, and in just a few short seconds we perceive the mother’s personal memory of her son’s tragic death.
The relationship between the two women and their respective love for János is explored as the main subject of the film. The lengths Luca goes to in writing letters and bringing gifts daily to please her mother-in-law, despite losing her job and possession of her and her husband’s home, augments the theme of filial as well as romantic love. There is a wonderful interaction between Luca and the old woman; they tease and call each other names as much as they dote on each other, and one wonders at times if the old woman is cognisant of her son’s plight and is playing the part of naive old mother because she too loves her daughter-in-law. The alleged letters from János are filled with fantastical and often ludicrous stories, and when the housekeeper Irén asks Luca how the old lady (who has read many books and can quote Goethe) can believe such rubbish, Luca tells her that where János is concerned the old woman is deaf and blind. Yet the ambiguity remains as to whether the old woman knows such stories are lies but chooses to believe in the lie rather the truth, to trust in the love of their relationship rather than risk alienating her daughter-in-law.
Love was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1971, and deservedly so, as it is a powerful essay on love’s enduring quality, the way it enables the one who loves to see beyond and cope with immediate suffering. At the same time it is a subtle indictment of the policies of Rákosi’s government in Hungary, and of other Stalinist regimes whose consequences are often as far reaching as they are devastating. Ultimately, this is crystallized in the film’s conclusion, when János’ release is just as arbitrary as his arrest.
Author of this review: Zachariah Rush