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An American Rhapsody

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: An American Rhapsody

Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Eva Gardos
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 106 Minutes
Release Date: August 2001
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Tony Goldwyn, Mae Whitman, Agi Banfalvy, Zoltan Seress, Emmy Rossum, Larisa Oleynik

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

I guess most of us think we've had weird childhoods, parents who did not understand us, but Eva Gardos's coming-of-age story is an unusual one because not many of us were in her predicament. One example of what people like her went through was seen in the documentary "Into the Arms of Strangers," about 10,000 Jewish children in Nazi-dominated Europe who were whisked to England where they were adopted, some never seeing their biological parents again. Not that Eva Gardos was a member of some hated minority in her native Hungary, and in fact she never even felt a need to leave her homeland. In "American Rhapsody," which is a dramatization of her early and adolescent years, she is seen singing songs in praise of the fun she has in Communist Hungary during the 1950's, nicely decked out in a white uniform with other genuinely smiling girls. But her parents faced a different set of circumstances, which is why Ms. Gardos gives us a labor of love with a movie depicting her bewilderment as a kid and later, her rebellion as an unhappy adolescent.

Eva, who in this story is named Suzanne and is seen at the age of one, again at six, and yet again at age fifteen, could scarcely have known what impelled her folks, Margit (Nastassja Kinski) and Peter (Tony Goldwyn) to risk everything by leaving the country of their birth. Peter's publishing house was closed down by the repressive Communist regime governing the East European nation and, as we later learn, someone happens to his wife Margit that is quite a bit more gruesome. Writer-director Gabor takes us through the risky escape, as Margit and Peter, dressed as peasants, are put on a train heading toward the Austrian border under the supervision of whatever they call a Coyote in the Budapest area, crawl under barbed wire, find themselves in Vienna and later go to Los Angeles. The trouble is that they have to leave their infant daughter Suzanne behind because of a stupid error by the little girl's grandmother. Suzanne grows without her real folks but stays in Budapest with foster parents, the kindly Jeno (Balazs Galko) and Teri (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi), inhabiting the middle of the story at age six where Suzanne is played by the marvelous and adorable Kelly Endresz Banlaki. Suzanne is wrested from the foster folks whom she loves by her grandmother and whisked to L.A. to join her biological parents where at first she digs the hamburgers, the Elvis records, and the lovely, if sterile, suburban landscape. By the time she reaches the troubled age of fifteen, however (as played by Scarlett Johansson--formerly of "The Horse Whisperers" and "Ghost World"), she's homesick for the old country and the kindly people she leaves behind.

I rarely want to throw tomatoes at the screen but I did in this case--and this is not a criticism of the film. Margit, who felt so oppressed during the Soviet occupation of Hungary and was itching to get out of there, now becomes a bit a Red Fascist herself, just like the occupations forces in 1950's Budapest. While praising the land of liberty, she suddenly does not like the freedoms that her daughter wants to enjoy with a handsome boy. Seeing the teen kissing the lad, she has bolts put on Suzanne's bedroom door and locks installed on the windows--to the chagrin of the poor teen who by then wants to escape to freedom--back to Hungary!

The question that keeps us, oh, in the middle of our seats by this time is: will she bolt for good and stay with her kindly Hungarian folks, where she can find equally handsome boys and be serenaded by gypsies? Or will she sell out and realize that America is her real home after all?

Gardos wears her heart on her sleeve. After all, this is her story and she must be proud indeed to share it with movie buffs everywhere. The film played first at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, then headed west to Nantucket, and is now scheduled to open August 10 in NY and LA and later in the rest of the country. Aside from being an absolute labor of love for Gardos, "An American Rhapsody" falls short of its title--a fairly ordinary picture told in a conventional style albeit with canny lensing especially in Budapest by Elemer Ragalyi, backed up by a Hungarian crew in the city of bridges and an L.A. team here in the States. Though arthouse fare, the plot is schematic. Important gaps make us want to know more about, say, how the Red Cross managed to sponsor Suzanne's solo trip at the age of six from Budapest to L.A. via London. Tony Goldwyn plays the kind of dad we all wish we had--understanding, gentle, often at a loss to calm down his neurotic wife. And Natassja Kinski blinks quite a bit. But oh, that Kelly Endresz Banlaki--that's the little actress whose notable performance will survive in our memory after the predictable plot is forgotten.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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