I intended to write about Pacific Film Archive’s current series The Films of Márta Mészáros weeks ago, but film festivals kept getting in the way and I kept pushing it into the future. Time, however, has finally forced my hand: the series wraps in less than three weeks. It’s now or never!
Though passing familiar with the films of István Szabó and Béla Tarr, my knowledge of Hungarian cinema is fairly shallow — especially in comparison to my knowledge of films from Iron Curtain countries as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, I’d never even heard of Márta Mészáros until PFA’s summer schedule dropped through my letterbox, but a quick visit to IMDb revealed that the director (who turns 91 later this year; she’s been retired since 2017) has bequeathed us with an impressively deep filmography consisting of 24 features and 36 shorts. PFA’s series includes 11 of the latter.
Mészáros’ earliest films focused on the trials and tribulations of working women in mid-20th century Hungary. Her characters, while by no means contemptuous of men, didn’t let the opposite sex make decisions for them. They were independent, forthright and honest, sensitive but never simpering, neither stereotypical victims nor exaggerated “strong” women.
Cold War origins notwithstanding, most of Mészáros’ films avoided making political statements: Her stories are small-scale and organic, and though they cast fascinating light on everyday life in communist-era Hungary — where clothing and brick factories seem as ubiquitous as universities — they are never heavy-handed in the way period films from Poland or East Germany could be. Indeed, they have much more in common with the open-minded Czech cinema of the 1960s; by coincidence or otherwise, Czech actress Jaroslava Schallerová (1970’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) headlined Mészáros’ brash counterculture tribute Szép lányok, ne sírjatok! (Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls!, also 1970).
Enough, though, about the films you’ve already missed: Coming next in the series is 1980’s Örökség (Inheritance, or The Heiresses, screening at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 6), in which Mészáros left the present behind and embarked on an examination of Hungarian history. Set in 1936 among the country’s bourgeois set, the film stars Lili Monori and Jan Nowicki (both leading lights of Magyar cinema) as Szilvia and Ákos, a barren married couple desperate for a child.
Undeterred by the obstacle nature has put in their way, the wealthy couple hire a surrogate mother: Iren (Isabelle Huppert, showing off her impressive fluency in Hungarian), a Jewish seamstress willing to help them accomplish their goal. The scheme works, but there’s a price to pay: Hungarian society is riven with deep-seated anti-Semitism, and World War II is just around the corner. Do not expect a happy ending.
While Mészáros shot exclusively in black and white until the mid 1970s, she’d transitioned to color by the time she made The Heiresses. The film has the lush, slightly gauzy look of a typical European feature of the period, while Zsolt Döme’s bright, charming score contrasts nicely with the mostly diagetic pop music the director had previously relied upon.
Mészáros’ next films — Diary for My Children, Diary for My Lovers and Diary for My Mother and Father — form an autobiographical trilogy; they’re also well worth your time. And should you get the opportunity to check out her earlier films — especially 1976’s Kilenc hónap (Nine Months), which also features the excellent Monori — you won’t be disappointed.