"It was the summer of 1965," Suzanne (Scarlett Johansson, GHOST WORLD) tells
us as the story opens on a picturesque Hungarian bridge on the wrong side of
the Iron Curtain. "I was fifteen, and my life was falling apart." For most
kids, one set of parents is plenty, sometimes more than enough. All of her
life Suzanne has had the blessing and the curse of having two sets of
parents, who live a world apart. It is never quite clear which ones are
more her "real" parents, her biological ones or her foster ones. In this
true story, both have profound love for her.
There are plenty of movies that generate laughter, as this one will too on
occasion, but few that cause you to cry as you will listening to Suzanne's
poignant story. Too often movies that try to pack an emotional wallop just
come across as cheap and maudlin. Not AN AMERICAN RHAPSODY, an honest drama
that touches your heart. The picture is a labor of love by long-time editor
Éva Gárdos (AGNES BROWN) in an incredibly accomplished debut as writer and
director. Just like Suzanne, Gárdos escaped Communist Hungary thanks to the
efforts of the Red Cross.
After the opening sequence, we jump to the past when Suzanne is just a baby.
Her parents, Margit and Peter, played in powerful yet understated
performances by Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn, are about to risk their
lives in a daring escape attempt across a heavily mined and guarded border.
Her sister is just barely old enough to accompany them, but they can't take
a baby. They have a separate scheme to smuggle Suzanne across, but it goes
awry. The net result is that Suzanne is left with a kind and loving family
who live on a remote Hungarian farm, while the rest of her immediate family
is off to America to make a new life for themselves while exhausting every
possible avenue to get their daughter returned to them.
The episodic movie covers the events when Suzanne is a baby as well as at
age three, six and fifteen. The longest portions are at six and at fifteen.
The actor who steals the movie is a real find, newcomer Kelly
Endresz-Banlaki, a snaggletoothed charmer who plays the key role of Suzanne
at age six, when the girl is first confronted with the reality of having two
sets of parents, both wanting her to be with them. The scenes of her at her
Hungarian farm home reminds us of how wonderful home can be, wherever it is
located. Home is where the heart is, and Suzanne's home is about to change,
which causes understandable trauma to her heart. There are so many ways
this key transition point in the story could have gone wrong, but under
Gárdos's capable hands and with Endresz-Banlaki's delightful acting, it
doesn't miss a step.
From there the story works its way from an innocent little girl seeing
television for the first time to an angst-filled teen with raging hormones.
The movie has some of the most impressive cinematography (Elemér Ragályi,
JACOB THE LIAR) of the year. From a rich Technicolor look that mimics
movies of the period to intriguing black-and-white flashback sequences, it
is hard to pick out a visual favorite. The set designers (Alex Tavoularis
and Stephanie Ziemer) and the costumers (Beatrix Aruna Pasztor and Vanessa
Vogel) work hard to get the look authentic without overwhelming us with
kitsch. The 60s, in particularly, is a hard era to recreate without
There's a lot more in this rich narrative that I haven't mentioned from the
maternal grandmother's plight in prison to the mother-daughter conflict of a
rebellious teen and an overprotective mother, who is dead set on never
losing her daughter again. Is there anything I would change? Not much.
I'd lose the boy on the bike with the big American flag, which was a little
too clichéd even if it did provide a nice two-second visual. If you leave
happily teary eyed, don't be surprised. But don't worry, you'll won't feel
AN AMERICAN RHAPSODY runs a nearly perfect length at 1:43. It is rated
PG-13 for "some violent content and thematic material," and would be
acceptable for any kid old enough to be interested in such serious stories.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes