A son remembers his father through the prism of imagination in István Szabó's Apa (1966)
It's innocent enough, but there's a common playground question which frequently prompts embarrassment: "What does your father do?" Of course, children have dreams of becoming astronauts, archeologists and detectives when they grow up, for these are the jobs they see glamorized by television and movies. They may look at the respectable work of their fathers - Takó's is a doctor - and register disappointment. They still have the need to find heroes in the world, which they view through rose-tinted glasses. This is why Takó (Dániel Erdély, András Bálint) creates a fabrication for his deceased father, painting him to all who ask as a Nazi-battling partisan, whose life was finally lost on the battlefield of revolution. A beautiful examination of grief and imagined heroism, Apa is ultimately a strange sort of coming-of-age story. In cinema the genre is mostly concerned with themes of sexuality, friendship and the hardships of high school; they're about realizations and reflections, and discovering your true self. Apa, set in post-WWII Hungary, is about death, and a young boy's need to create an idol in the father he never knew. His development into manhood unfurls delicately, as the the innocence of youth fades away and he comes to accept the truth about his father. Takó's emotional circumstance may be unique, but his actions speak to the boy in all of us...
Szabó's second film after 1965's Álmodozások kora, also a coming-of-age tale, Apa was recently voted by Hungarian critics as one of the greatest Hungarian films of all time, and it's easy to see why. The photography, courtesy of DP Sándor Sára, is achingly beautiful, and the monochrome glow of the early scenes give them the feeling of a cherished memory; almost like living photographs. The black and white is not harsh but inviting, and the darkness ripe for espionage and adventure. The later scenes, which find Takó all grown up, have a subtle change in aesthetic. They become less painterly and more proletariat, concerned with realism more than daydream. There are still moments of humour, and the tone remains just as spirited, but Szabó's understanding of colour and lighting informs us that perspective has changed; our protagonist is older and wiser, and defined by life experience. He's a good listener. Interesting, considering that he was always the most talkative of his friends.
Despite harsh conditions, the first half of Szabó's film is marked by the unshakable optimism of youth, especially in a montage of specific memories the boy has of his father. There are three; the father chasing a bird in the front garden, the boy visiting his father in surgery, and the father coming home from work, as the boy runs into his arms (the perspective is 1st-person) for a loving embrace. The camerawork is extraordinary, and Szabó's use of space frequently interesting. Look at the way he used high-angle shots especially, and prefers to shoot characters from behind.
The teenage Takó struggles to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and he still tells white lies to his University chums. It comes naturally, but I think he now accepts in his mind the sort of man his father was. Upon entering an old cellar, Takó says to himself "That's where father hid... No, I only made up that story." He still dreams, but somehow the experience is different. Perhaps now he acknowledges that they are dreams, and the scene where he is recruited as an extra for a WWII film - a scene of rounded-up Jews being led across a bridge - allows him to understand how much strength was required to survive those years, even without being a partisan. For strength is the single quality of a hero.
The image is incredibly crisp and clear; Second Run have done an amazing job of restoring this one, and the photography probably looks better than ever. There are no extras on the disc but a comprehensive booklet, authored by Hungarian cinema expert John Cunningham, is excellent, and more than makes up for it.
Due to the recent fires which destroyed a Sony warehouse in London, 'Apa' will now be released on DVD on September 12th. Thankfully Second Run DVD are still in business, and will be re-stocking all titles within the next month. They're an invaluable source of obscure and independent cinema, especially from foreign markets - their releases from the Czechoslovak New Wave, for example, which otherwise we'd see very little of in this country, are all fantastic. They're an extraordinary outlet, so please, support them.