Directed by Istvan Szabo
Written by Szabo and Israel Horovitz
With Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weizs, Jennifer Ehle, William Hurt and Deborah Kara Unger
Distributed by Paramount Classics
SUNSHINE could be the very reason the phrase "Euro-pudding" was invented. The decline of state support for Hungarian filmmaking has marginalized Szabo, whose 60s films earned him a reputation confirmed by 80s work like MEPHISTO and COLONEL REDL, to the point where he's had to turn to Canadian financing, English-language dialogue and a cast featuring such notable Magyars as Ralph Fiennes, Deborah Kara Unger and William Hurt to get this 3-hour epic about 20th-century Hungarian history made. (Zhang Yimou has often been accused of pandering to Western audiences, but I can't picture him making a film about Chinese history in English, with Western actors.) When I first heard about the film, I cringed at the prospect of Fiennes playing three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, but it turns out that casting is the least of SUNSHINE's flaws. It doesn't fail for lack of ambition -in fact, it surpasses even the metaphorical and narrative scope of THE GODFATHER trilogy or 1900, with a timespan running from 1869 to the present, but the results fall well below its sky-high aims.
The story of SUNSHINE kicks off with Ignatz Sonnenschein (Fiennes),
the son of a hard-nosed, deeply religious patriarch. Ignatz rebels against
his intolerant upbringing by marrying his stepsister Valerie (Ehle), who's
actually a cousin, and trying to assimilate into mainstream Austro-Hungarian
society by becoming a judge, endorsing the monarchy and changing his last
name to the more Christian-sounding "Sors". His son Adam (Fiennes again,
this time with a mustache) goes a step further in distancing himself from
Judaism, converting to Catholicism in order to get into an officers' fencing
club. After the rise of Nazism, even his status an Olympic champion doesn't
save him from being tortured to death at Auschwitz in front of his son
Ivan (you guessed it.)
After surviving Auschwitz, Ivan grows up to become a dedicated Communist, but he soon becomes disgusted by the blatant brutality and anti-Semitism of Stalinist tyranny. Still, he survives Communism and eventually becomes interested in returning to his Jewish roots.
It sometimes seems that the manic pace and extremely dark humor of films like Lucian Pintilie's THE OAK, Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND and Alexei German's KHROUSTALIOV, MY CAR! has become the official style of post-Communist Eastern European cinema, but Szabo has never seemed temperamentally suited to this style. Given his penchant for the grand scale, Chinese films like Hou Hsaio-hsien's CITY OF SADNESS and THE PUPPETMASTER, Tian Zhuangzhuang's THE BLUE KITE and Zhang Yimou's TO LIVE might have served Szabo well as models for his historical saga. Instead, SUNSHINE is coated with a Tradition of Quality patina of blandness, reminiscent of Régis Wargnier's recent (and slightly livelier) EAST/WEST. The presence of Fiennes should have been a tip-off.
The 62-year-old Szabo, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a barn until he was six, admits his film's autobiographical roots in a recent interview with Indiewire. While he claims that he spent 40 years preparing for it, the urgency that this project must have held for him never makes it onscreen. He and co-writer Horovitz don't have much luck at interweaving the personal and historical. The two screenwriters boiled down their final draft from a 500-page script originally intended as a mini-series for German TV, and their inability to do justice to some of their more intriguing subplots suggests that SUNSHINE might have been more successful in that longer form. The first half hour is surprisingly fast-paced, flying by too quickly to do justice to its large cast of characters, but it's the most emotionally engaging of the three sections.
Ultimately, Szabo's aspiration to create the Hungarian-Jewish epic is his undoing, as he drains the life away from his characters by dragging them onto the Stage Of History to confront World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, Stalinism and the failed 1956 anti-Soviet revolution. All three of Fiennes' incarnations feel like symbols of a period in Hungarian and Jewish history, not real people. When SUNSHINE addresses the way politics affect its characters' everyday behavior in subtle ways, it works best, but after trying to sum up the 20th century in 3 hours, Szabo settles for Ivan's instant re-discovery of Judaism through the platitudinous "wisdom" of Ignatz's father. Despite its extreme length, the film is rarely boring, but it shines little light on the last century.