When East and West Meet

in 48th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Michel Euvrard

“Lost in translation” takes place in a large Japanese city, mainly in the rooms and bars of an international hotel, and in television studios; the protagonists and some of the supporting characters are Americans “translated” in Japan for a while. One, Bob Harris, middle-aged actor, husband and father, is on a promotion tour for a brand of whisky; the other is the wife of a young photographer scheduled to shoot a number of fashion shows; a recent graduate in philosophy from Yale, she has nothing to do except read in her room, take walks in Japanese gardens, visit Buddhist temples… A hare-brained, synthetically enthusiastic girl pop-singer and the woman who sings in the bar of the hotel are the other Americans.

The first half of the film is a satirical comedy talking pot-shots at those aspects of the Japanese media scene which are at once most exotic (the elaborate politeness of the delegation greeting Bob Harris at the airport) and most imitative of what is believed to be the American way of doing things: so, the filming session for the whisky commercial, the director with artistic pretensions who makes believe he is shooting a big budget film, his sycophantic crew, the TV-show on which Bob appears and its host, are caricatures, and so, for the sake of symmetry, are the young American pop singer and photographer. It is often very funny.

Then, very progressively and subtly, Coppola modulates the mood from broad comedy to something more meditative and melancholy, as Bob and the girl, the detached and somewhat blasé veteran of show business and the more curious and intellectual young woman, draw progressively closer, spend time, talk, share drinks, take walks together – and no, do not start an affair! In time, Bob leaves for home, and the girl stays on a little longer, neither any more, as “lost in translation” as they were at first, having through that brief episode of subdued companionship, recovered, perhaps even discovered something of themselves. Coppola’s film combines a brilliant exercise in the description of ‘modernity’ and a quiet attempt at rediscovering in the midst of it some of the springs of our humanity.

By-Ways of the Festival

Besides the official section of which “Lost in translation” was part, the festival offered several plums, like the cycle “Teheran, city of cinema”: I was struck how several of its films, not just the remake of “Bicycle Thief” reveal the impact of Italian neo-realism on the Iranian directors of the 60’s and 70’s. Then, among a group of films labelled “Belgian surrealist films” – Belgium was the invited country this year in Valladolid, and a vigorous branch of surrealism flourished there from the 20’s on – a “Fantômas” was closest to surrealist inspiration with a succession of fresh, unexpected black and white shots akin to the images in surrealist poetry; this was accompanied in the gallery of the Calderon Theatre, the festivals main venue, by a small but quite delightful exhibition of photographs by “Magritte and his contemporaries”, mostly individual and group portraits, done in a playful spirit (but as one knows, the surrealists took playing games very seriously).

The richest and most moving film to me, however, was Karoly Makk’s “A Long Weekend in Buda and Pest” in which Makk, 77, revisits his 1970 film “Love” (Szerelem). In “Love” two women, the mother (Lili Darvas), 96 and bedridden, and the wife (Mari Törökcsik then in her thirties) of an absent man keep the home fires burning; the mother believes her son is making a career in films in Hollywood; the wife knows he is in prison for political reasons (the year is 1953) and she lies to the mother and fabricates false letters from America to maintain a breath of life in the fragile old woman. (Does this bring to mind “Depuis qu’Otar est parti”?!). After she has died, the man comes back and the couple is reunited.

In “Long Week-end” Ivan and Mari are played, thirty-three years later, by the same two actors, Ivan, who fled Hungary for London in 1956, and is now retired in Lugano with an English wife, receives an anonymous phone-call telling him that Mari has had a heart-attack and lies in critical condition in hospital; he must come. This is why Ivan goes back to Budapest after almost fifty years, how his and Mari’s story is in part retold, completed and brought up to date, how Mari, who hasn’t stopped loving Ivan, is briefly revived by his presence, and then dies serenely, how Ivan learns that Mari bore him a daughter and gets acquainted with her, how he returns to Lugano to find his wife gone and his house emptied! (but Anna will come and visit and perhaps even live with him).

The emotional impact does depend in part on one having seen “Love” (and other films with Mari Töröksik, one of my great cinematographic loves) but the new film adds layers of meaning and ambiguities, of suffering, of revelations on decades of Hungarian (and European) history; it echoes and reverberates in the mind.