Saturday, February 02, 2008

Rokonok and American Gangster, Istvan Szabo and Ridley Scott

On the face of it, Istvan Szabo's Rokonok, meaning Relatives (2006) and Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007) are not to be spoken of in the same breath. Hungarian director Szabo is in a class of his own, and so is the American Scott. Szabo belongs to the European auteur tradition, whereas Scott is well within the framework of the well-crafted Hollywood drama. People would even say that talking about Szabo and Scott would be like, using the cliche, speaking of apples and oranges.

But there is something that connects the two films if not the two directors. It is the question of corruption and crime. In Rokonok (above), the issue is that of corruption in the context of a small Hungarian town, quite far from the capital, Budapest. But the politics of corruption is deeply entrenched in the sleepy little town, where everyone knows the other. The hero of the film, Istvan Kopjass, played by Sandor Cazriyi, is chosen the prosecutor because he is seen to be a faceless and harmless bureaucrat. He is married with two children. His wife, Lena Szentkalnay, played by Ildiko Toth, is a simple, upright woman, a little unpretentious and straight-talking woman. Once Istvan takes up the important job of the prosecutor, he finds himself being manipulated by the mayor, who had chosen him, as well as the other bigwigs and sharpshooters. Some of them turn out to be his relatives as well. One of the jokes in the town is that everyone is related to the other, especially if one is in power!

Kopjass takes the pressures and manipulations of the first few days as prosecutor in good humour before he realises that he is on the slippery slope of corruption. He means to fight the corruption, but he thinks it can be done without being confrontational about it. But his wife Lena is alarmed by the developing situation. She warns her husband. Istvan disimisses her fears as the apprehensions of an unambitious woman.

When he comes to know of the brazen manipulations for doling out projects, he sits up and chooses to unravel the web of corruption choking the town. But he is pushed into the corner.

Szabo shows an idyllic town and the happy family of Istvan in the sylvan settings of his small but elegant home. The quiet is shattered as Kopjass fails to tackle the pressure around him, and the manipulators mercilessly corner him even as he fights to expose them.

Szabo's frames are simple and direct. There is no hint of metaphor and symbol. The film is based on a novel written in 1920s, but there is no doubt that it is an indictment of the corruption in contemporary Hungarian politics.

The fawning clerk (seen in the picture above) in the mayor's office is a pure caricature but a real one. The arrogant mayor and the cunning contractor are recognizable characters. They are in-your-face political villains. But Szabo does no more than show them. Koopjass is tall, well-meaning and vulnerable. That is what a good man is in a bad town.

Now turn to Scott's American Gangster (top), a Hollywood drama. Though ostensibly based on a real life story, Frank Lucas, the black mafia don, played by Denzel Washington, and the prosecutor, Richie Roberts played by Rusell Crowe are larger-than-life characters. Though Scott touches the raw nerve of the American nation by showing that the US army was used as a conduit in Thailand in the last days of the Vietnam war of the early 1970s, the dramatic fulcrum of the film is the intertwined story of Lucas and Roberts.

Scott plays the Hollywood trick of placing the story in the context of the Vietnam war and the announcements of president Richard Nixon over the television announcing the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and the war on drugs at home. The film is interspersed with set pieces. Roberts' marriage breaks down because he is a poor and honest cop as well as a bit of a philanderer and a drinker on the wild side. But even as he fights crime against all odds he acquires a law degree. In the end, he stands up to present the prosecution's case. On the other hand, Lucas is the man with family values, who brings in his poor family into the big rich mansion he has bought. And he takes on the role of the pater familias in running the drug syndicate.

The big weakness in Scott's depiction is that it is high on drama -- Lucas is arrested after the Sunday service and Roberts and his rag-tag army of detectives stand on the pavement, leaning against the railing and against the lamp-posts and the police cars barricade the road. But the film is unable to hide its weakness. It does not touch the shattering truth of the black ghettos where pverty and drug addiction reign supreme except by showing them in double quick sequences. And he does not show too closely the demoralised and almost degenarate US troops, some of whose members are involved in the drug racket.

Szabo's Kopjass and Scott's Roberts stand apart. Kopjass is authentic. Roberts is true but lacks credibility.

1 comment:

Jugu Abraham said...

It is an interesting comparison, Venkat--though I have not seen both the films. I am familiar with other works of both Szabo and Ridley Scott. Szabo's recent works have deteriorated compared to his earlier cinema ("Budapest Tales," "Mephisto," etc., which were great works compared to his recent "Being Julia"). Similarly, Ridley Scott's 1977 film "The Duellists" is so much superior to later works like the Oscar-winning "Gladiator" both in content and form. But you are right, both directors used to approach cinema with the mind's eye in the past. Perhaps you spotted that similar vein in these two recent films too... I will catch up with the two films. But again it is interesting to study the two together and their approaches to cinema. Szabo, I guess, has more to offer...

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