Unraveling the Circular Narration of Oppression
In Katalin Moldovai’s debut feature film, Without Air (Elfogy a levego), the letter ‘O’ takes center stage. From the very outset, the film introduces us to the concept of the ‘O’ as a circle that signifies the cyclical nature of narration. This circular narrative, heavily influenced by the ideas of Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French philosopher, embodies the female experience, characterized by cycles of life, rebirth, and resistance. The ‘O’ serves as a metaphor for the eternal return of challenging societal norms, mirroring the relentless determination of Ana as she battles against a conservative education system.
The story revolves around Ana Bauch, a passionate high school literature teacher caught in the crossfire of cultural conservatism. Ana, brilliantly portrayed by Ágnes Krasznahorkai, is a progressive teacher who captivates her students with her unconventional teaching methods. She assigns the viewing of Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), a film depicting the complex relationship between 19th-century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Ana uses this film to teach her students about Rimbaud’s poetry. The conservative father of Viktor, one of the students, vehemently objects to the film assignment, setting off a chain reaction that leads to accusations of misconduct and the spreading of ‘homosexual propaganda’ by Ana. The local media seizes upon the scandal, subjecting Ana to even greater scrutiny. As the pressure mounts, Ana faces a critical decision: should she fight the system?
Without Air delves into the complexities of education and isolationism in the face of rising conservatism and political oppression. Writer-director Katalin Moldovai delivers a bold debut that captures the essence of Hungary’s changing climate, both ecologically and sociopolitically. In a world where rationality and reason are under attack, and freedom of expression is actively repressed, the film boldly challenges the status quo. One of the remarkable elements of Without Air is its use of semiotics. Moldovai demonstrates a profound understanding of the visual language of cinema and masterfully incorporates signs and symbols into the narrative. One symbol that distinctly stands out is the recurring image of a large bear. This bear, featured prominently in two scenes, carries multifaceted symbolism. Initially encountered in a school corridor, it functions as a visual obstruction, which covers the film’s central character, Ana. This visual choice not only serves as an artistic metaphor but also foreshadows the role the bear will play later in the film. The reappearance of the bear takes on profound significance during a pivotal confrontation. As Ana grapples with mounting allegations and societal pressure, she finds herself in the house of Viktor’s father. It is here that the bear on the floor serves as a metaphorical representation of a relentless pursuit—a symbolic hunt to silence Ana’s unconventional teaching methods and ideas. It becomes a potent reminder of the formidable opposition Ana faces, symbolizing power and intimidation.
One of the other most striking examples of the film’s semiotic depth is the creative exploration of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” This iconic painting adorns the outside of a bus that features prominently in the film. When the suitcase compartment on the bus is opened, a symbolic gesture unfolds. The opening door creates a visual separation, distancing the outstretched hands in the painting, and thus conveys the complex dynamics of communication and human connection in a world dominated by oppressive forces.
The authenticity of Without Air is not limited to its semiotic brilliance; it extends to its set design. The film’s unadorned yet realistic set design enhances the authenticity of the narrative. Every detail is meticulously chosen, creating a subtle yet poetic visual landscape that underlines the film’s core themes.
Cinematographically, Without Air captivates with its striking visuals. The film brilliantly captures the essence of a bleak Hungarian town, casting it in a unique artistic light. The circular motifs within the mise en scène create a visual narrative that enhances the storytelling, further underlining the circularity of life in this small Hungarian town. Furthermore, the film’s camerawork is nothing short of ingenious. A standout sequence unfolds as Ana visits the school principal in the gymnasium. The camera movements induce a sense of imbalance, mirroring Ana’s precarious position in a world where rationality and reason are under siege.
The film benefits from meticulous and methodical performances from the entire cast, adding to the film’s emotional depth. The tonal music further complements the narrative, guiding the audience through the emotional ups and downs of the story. In conclusion, Without Air is an intelligent and thought-provoking cinematic work. Katalin Moldovai’s debut feature is an artistic triumph, blending the poetic with the political, and offering a remarkable study of circular storytelling and visual semiotics. The film is a poignant reflection on the timeless struggle for freedom of expression and the enduring power of a dedicated teacher.
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2023