Luck is a Many-splendored Thing

in 19th ZagrebDox International Documentary Film Festival

by Maximilian Schäffer

Characters like Anikó and Laci from Mátyás Kálmán’s Paying A Visit To Fortuna (Fortuna vendégei, Hungary-Croatia 2022) are a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream and worst nightmare in equal measure. A story of the poorest becoming rich by winning the lottery is, after all, a hackneyed part of the capitalist fairy tale canon. Even more fantastic than the American dream, the dream of winning the lottery includes the chance to become a millionaire without ever having washed a single plate. Arduous career ladders are overturned and replaced by the rocket suit—”to the moon” is a contemporary slogan among dreaming small investors.

600 million forints, once the equivalent of two million euros, was indeed a solid fortune in the circumstances of the small Hungarian town of Györ on the Slovak-Austrian border, where a decent house could still be bought for a twentieth of that sum. Laci and Aniekó won it in 2013 through a lucky draw—their encounter with Fortuna, then, in keeping with the title. Director Mátyás Kálmán follows the rehabilitated, temporarily homeless drunkard and his formerly severely overweight wife from the beginning of their lucky step. They buy the usual dreams of the little people: a big house, a big car, a big TV. Anikó fulfills her wish of a new body, she loses weight radically. Laci stops drinking. This is the real, holistic dream of the littlest people: a new life.

While prosperity means a moment of awakening for both protagonists, it soon becomes clear that this awakening leads in opposite directions. For the husband, it simply means peace, a carefree existence in quiet blossoming without hardship. His wife, on the other hand, wants to forget her humdrum everyday life behind the stove. She wants to administrate, to create, to manage, and, in the end, to receive recognition for her achievements. Being a retiree and an entrepreneur are two quite different life plans. If one has quite different dreams in marriage, then necessity, if it exists, inevitably binds one to the other. Laci and Anikó now get their first opportunity to doubt their love.

At the Zagreb Regional Competition, Paying A Visit To Fortuna stood out for its conventional form. Amidst many works on the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, which mainly took on personal perspectives on historical tragedies, between short and semi-long films with animation elements, amidst silent, elegiac observations on the politics of man and nature, Kálmán’s work captivated with the art of cultivated editorial detachment, as one is rudimentarily familiar with from better television. It would have been easy to ridicule Anikó and Laci, with their illiteracy and naiveté. In turn, it would have been just as easy to stage them as tragic victims, in favor of a paternalistic viewpoint that is universally popular with viewers.

In 74 minutes, however, the director succeeds in developing a sincerely ambivalent commentary on the success and failure of his protagonists that is rarely seen either on television or in the cinema. Aniekó opens a café without alcohol, but with chocolate kebabs and ice cream. What you can do with your heart and soul, you can’t fail, she thinks naively. Laci makes a good face when his function as a consulting life partner is abolished by his wife through a young chauffeur. And falls back into alcohol. Aniekó, overwhelmed by her businesses, becomes a tyrant and again obese. Real estate and stocks are also not for the little people, even if the investment advisor sometimes gives you a lucrative hug. Kálmán ends his film with immanently huge reflections on life and love and a sunset at the Croatian sea—even this element of raw pathos succeeds without exploitation and kitsch.

Maximilian Schäffer
Edited by Savina Petkova