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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

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
2.  Harvey Karten read the review ---

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

"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 producing parody.

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 manipulated.

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

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