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SUNSHINE (Ein Hauch von Sonnenschein)(director/writer: István Szabó; screenwriter: Israel Horovitz; cinematographer: Lajos Koltai; editors: Michel Arcand/Dominique Fortin; cast: Ralph Fiennes (Ignatz Sonnenschein/ Adam Sors/Ivan Sors), Jennifer Ehle (Valerie Sonnenschein), Rosemary Harris (Valerie Sors), James Frain (Gustave Sonnenschein), John Neville (Gustave Sors), Rachel Weisz (Greta), Deborah Kara Unger (Maj. Carole Kovacs), David De Keyser (Emmanuel Sonnenschein), Miriam Margolyes (Rose Sonnenschein), Molly Parker (Hannah), Mark Strong (Istvan), William Hurt (Andor Knorr); Runtime: 180; Paramount Classics; 1999-Hungary)
“… its messages were of the kind that hit you over the head with a loud thud.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very long, sweeping historical study narrated in a first person voice-over by Ivan Sonnenschein (Ralph Fiennes), the last surviving member of the hard-pressed Sunshine family. The film tells about three generations of an Hungarian-Jewish family whose story picks up at the end of the 19th century and spans most of the 20th. It is the semiautobiographical saga of the director István Szabó’s life, derived from his original story and co-scripted by American playwright Israel Horovitz. According to Szabó, it also includes other stories he heard about other Jews. The problem with epics of this grand design, is they could never be dramatic enough. That is the case here, as the story was leaden. It plodded along linear lines and through episodic political regimes: from monarchy to Fascist, and finally to Communist regimes. The filmmaking, though well-intentioned and intelligently presented, was just too dull and uninspiring to sustain interest in the lesson it is trying to teach about the mess bigotry and politics makes, even if the lesson is an important one and shouldn’t be ignored. The film was also bereft of any subtlety, its messages were of the kind that hit you over the head with a loud thud.

The film begins as the beloved local Hungarian village barkeep with a secret formula for making his herbal drink, gets killed when his distillery explodes. His 12-year-old son leaves the small village for Budapest with his inheritance from his father, a bound book of the brew’s recipes and his father’s gold watch. He uses his family name, Sunshine, as his company name to distill the brew and grows up to become a very wealthy man. He has two sons, Gustave (Frain) and Ignatz, and when his brother dies he adopts their baby girl Valerie (Jennifer Ehle). Education becomes the key for these children for social acceptance in the liberal dictatorship of Austria-Hungary. The fiery Gustave becomes a medical doctor and a socialist, who opposes the monarchy; Ignatz becomes a lawyer and then a judge, who is loyal to the monarchy; while Valerie becomes a photographer, who has no use for politics but cares about the people and their sufferings.

Ralph Fiennes will play three roles: the son Ignatz, who changes the family’s Jewish name to an Hungarian name, Sors, so that he can advance his career (his brother and sister follow suit); his son Adam, who converts to Catholicism so he can assimilate and be part of a military officers’ fencing club that doesn’t accept Jews. He thereby gets the opportunity to become an Olympic gold medal winner for fencing in the infamous 1936 Berlin games; and he will also play Adam’s son Ivan who survives a concentration camp and joins the communists when they rule Hungary after the war, but becomes disillusioned with the regime after he has to betray his Jewish superior and mentor (Hurt). Ivan leaves the Communist party and is jailed after the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when the West failed to help his cause.

Many scenes stand out for the wrong reason–their awkwardness. The worst scene was during the monarchy period when Valerie seduces her brother, who is really her cousin. The drivel that comes out of that dialogue goes something like this: “I love you…but not like a sister!”

Gustave will marry Valerie and have children, Istvan (Mark Strong) and Adam, which starts the family curse. She will later divorce him because he has lost all compassionate feelings and has fallen in love with the monarchy instead of justice.

The middle period drew the most powerful image in the film. Hungarian soldiers have rounded up two thousand Jews as prisoners in a Nazi death camp and Adam refuses to say he is a Jew to one hateful soldier, only uttering that he is an Hungarian Olympic Games gold medal winner. The Hungarian soldier strips him and beats him and then hangs him in front of his son and the other Jews watching, as they spray water on him until his body freezes to death.

During the Stalinist period, Ivan advances to become a prosecutor for the secret police in the Communist Hungarian regime and has an affair with the attractive blonde major, Deborah Kara Unger. She is married to a communist goon and is so fearful in this relationship, that even when she’s in the woods getting banged against a tree she still furtively looks over her shoulder. This scene says more about the police state in those few glances than Szabó has been able to convey in three hours of filming.

The point being made in all the belabored efforts of the filmmaker, is that political regimes, materialism, and all causes are temporary, and that religions tend to be divisive. What makes life worth living could be found only in the arts. Valerie (Jean Harris), as the surviving grandmother and matriarch of the family in the 1960s, is the only one in the family who survived with dignity. The male members Fiennes played all lost their souls and lost track of who they were, trying too hard to fit in where they didn’t belong. The film shows how assimilation can’t work, changing your name can’t work, being a good family and trying to be loyal to an oppressive regime can’t work, passivity can’t work, there is nothing that the Jew can do to make those who hate him change their minds.

Valerie’s secret recipe is not found in a book but in the freedom she has to see the beautiful things in life that are more important than possessions and honors, and that all things are so fleeting.

I felt drained after seeing this epic not from joy, but from weariness of all the messages. When a toast was made by the Sunshine family to bring in the new century, Fiennes proclaims: “Long live the 20th century!” He goes on to say, “I predict this will be a century of love, justice and tolerance.” Of course, the century was anything but that, with the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Communist Iron Curtain over Hungary. This was the only irony found in the film, a film that just couldn’t get its complex view across on what went wrong for the Jew in the anti-Semitic world of Austria-Hungary without being a drudge.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”