QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
The 82-year-old director Istvan Szabo is perhaps Hungary’s most internationally acclaimed director, and certainly one of the most prolific. He has made more than 30 feature films in a career spanning six decades. His latest creation is a very conventional drama with a duration of nearly two hours. It’s mostly effective yet hardly innovative. It isn’t particularly easy for an auteur to reinvent himself so late in his career.
Professor Stephanus (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is a respectable cardiologist in his late 60s. He runs a department in a Budapest hospital and is happily married with a daughter, who lives abroad. He loves his profession, performing his duties with the passion of an artist on stage. This is deftly illustrated in the opening scene, when the term “operating theatre” acquires an entirely new significance. Stephanus’s commitment to his profession is unflinching. So much that he returns to his home village in order to work as a GP and avoid forced retirement after his hospital is shut. He leaves his beloved wife behind and moves in with his mother. A very unusual age to start anew. And a very strange return to the roots.
Life in the idyllic village, however, isn’t as peaceful as Stephanus anticipated. Someone breaks into his car and steals his GPS. The local baker encounters a tragic death due to his financial woes. Gossip spreads like wildfire, claiming his friendship with the local choir teacher (a charming widow of around the same age) as its first casualty. The unscrupulous mayor unearths a dirty secret from Stephanus’s past so that he can chase the doctor away and turn his surgery into a health spa. The waters aren’t medicinal at all, but that’s entirely irrelevant to a greedy politician seeking to attract investment. The local priest becomes Stephanus’s most trusted friend, with whom he shares his secrets and fears.
Brandauer is quietly impressive in the lead. He conveys a broad spectrum of emotions with sparse facial movements, in a film with abundant close-ups. Because the 68-year-old actor is Austrian, I assumed that someone else voiced this Hungarian-speaking character. In reality, Brandauer has a working knowledge of five languages: German, Italian, English, French and Bulgarian and he has indeed acted in each one of them. A very impressive skill set.
The list of topics in this movie is very extensive: the inevitability of change, sociopolitical ethics, the power of gossip, the clash of the old and the new, commitment to the Hippocratic Oath, and so on. The problem is that the story loses steam halfway through, and it becomes banal and trite in the second half. It feels almost like a television soap opera compressed into one long episode. It has moved nostalgic Hungarians, but it might have a more soporific effect on other nationalities.
Final Report has just premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It’s part of the event’s Official Competition. It showed earlier this year in Hungarian cinemas, but I doubt it will see extensive theatrical distribution elsewhere.