Love lies at the center of Zoltán Huszárik's surreal masterwork Szindbád (1971)
In the classic Arabian Nights stories, as in 70's stop-motion spectaculars such as Eye Of The Tiger (Sam Wanamaker, 1977), Sinbad The Sailor is a muscular, sea-faring hero who embarks upon mystical adventures, fighting monsters such as Roc's (giant mythological vultures) and Minotaurs. But the Sinbad of Huszárik's film is a hedonistic lover who makes his conquests on land, among the beauties of Hungary's elegiac landscape. The film teases us with brief shots of a woman's breasts, blooming flowers, crisp autumnal leaves dancing in the breeze and water rippling through streams of broken ice. It is a film of natural wonderment and desire, blended to form a surreal non-linear love story, or a story of love's end. Rapturous and intoxicating, it is truly one of the lost masterworks of Hungarian cinema.
Actually based upon the texts of surrealist writer Gyula Krúdy, whose Sinbad, originating in 1911's The Adventures Of Sinbad, is a licentious seducer of the feminine form (and apparently reminiscent of the author himself), Huszárik's film deserves to be ranked alongside the classic Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970) as a dreamy cinematic letter to ethereal love. Szindbád juxtaposes days of youthful splendor with moments of expressed regret, impressionistically flitting between the various sexual encounters of Sinbad's (Zoltán Latinovits) indulgent life. At one point Majmunka (Margit Dajka), a former lover, describes him as "an ugly, grey-haired, debauched man." This is probably true of the aristocratic bed-hopper, but it it also true that we never really know him; he is elusive, like the glimpses of sexualised flesh exposed to us via memory (at least, this is my reading).
Huszárik, who also co-wrote the picture, has a clear vision for Szindbád, but the real hero of this piece is DP Sándor Sára, whose understanding of light and colour is impeccable. An early scene finds two beautiful young women dancing in the forest, their diaphanous, wispy bodies twirling and entwining against the reflective shades of sunlight bursting through naked trees. It's a hypnotically abstract sequence, and quite unlike anything else in Hungarian cinema, which is principally associated with the static austerity of Béla Tarr. But beauty also lies in the details of the film, and especially in the surroundings, which are often explored in microscopic detail. The pure white of snow; the impassioned rage of scarlet red, found on walls, cherries and flowers; the fresh green of glinting eyes and wilting trees; the softness of the landscape; the lavish nature of the decor - Szindbád is an achingly gorgeous film, and every frame is a work of art.
Unfortunately I cannot express much in the way of political context, but I can assure you that such knowledge is not essential in understanding the beauty of Szindbád, or its protagonists obsession with beauty. On an aesthetic level Huszárik's film is a masterpiece, and maybe that's enough, but I feel I would be more rewarded by the film if I understood its culture, its literary roots and its political meaning in a more profound manner than I currently do. If you're a fan of surrealist cinema, and the cinema of images and sound coalescing into a dream-web, if you will, then Szindbád is an essential purchase - because on those terms, it ranks among the best on the market.
The transfer is absolutely brilliant, and I only wish that Second Run would move into the Blu-Ray market; Szindbád would blow all competition out of the water. The aforementioned 20-page booklet by film historian Michael Brooke is excellent, and hugely readable. Some might find it a little academic, but Brooke's writing style is fluid, witty, entertaining and informative, and certainly his contextualization of the film is essential. On the disc is a fascinating 12-minute interview with Katalin Varga (2009) director Peter Strickland, in which he enthusiastically and intelligently discusses his experience with the film and also goes a long way toward informing political context. The extras may not be numerous, but they are vital, and support the feature well, which is what I suppose extras are for. In that case, job well done.