A mighty wind blows through the peasants' revolt... Red Psalm (1972)
Composed of just 28 sequence shots, Miklós Jancsó's Red Psalm (Még kér a nép) is one of cinema's greatest political parables, a film Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly described as "an awesome fusion of form with content and politics with poetry." Set in 1898, the film elliptically floats through several days in a socialist revolt, charting the epic struggle by the working class against their bureaucrat oppressors. Jancsó denies the audience any association with a specific character, instead taking the Hungarian workers as a collective, united by linked arms and folkish rhapsodies. Musicians ramble freely around the rings of revolutionaries, singing songs of peace and freedom. "The land belongs to those who cultivate it" declares one character, a plain woman who sows seeds in the hope that life will be born from them. Jancsó's film is empathetic and objective, a vision for which he won 1972's Best Director prize at Cannes.
But those without a working knowledge of Hungarian history or politics (this bracket includes me) needn't be intimidated by Red Psalm's subject, for Jancsó's tale is a bold cinematic adventure which, with its graceful camerawork and ethereal landscapes, strikes a deep and resonant emotional chord. Much like Zoltán Huszárik's Szindbád (1971), released by Second Run earlier this year, Red Psalm presents a perfect marriage of form with content, expressing much of its story with striking visual patterns. Written by Gyula Hernádi, the film employs dialogue sparingly (much of it feels improvised), preferring to let the landscape speak for itself. The camera glides past characters - incidental and critical - with no particular rhythm, and reading the essay which accompanies this release I learn that Jancsó didn't plan or choreograph any of his shots before arriving on set. There's a freedom to his camerawork which perfectly complements the action it observes, wherein characters often break into dance and address the camera directly. It's a film constantly in motion, and this helps engage the viewer through the disconnected narrative.
DP János Kende captures the fields of revolt beautifully, and there's one particularly striking sequence where the protestors set a church on fire. The flames tremble and roar around this holy architecture; it is a formidable beauty. Jancsó switches between intimate close-ups (sometimes too close, and the effect is choking) and huge landscape shots with ease, and his eye is highly developed. There's another impressive sequence where the protesters unify in dance, only to be surrounded by armed soldiers. Horses gallop around the site, denying them any chance of escape. Their fate was perhaps inevitable, but the ringing gunshots still strike a devastating blow, and Jancsó's distance from the event makes it all the more chilling. His understanding of framing and colour is impeccable, and the use of red, at first on a bleeding hand and then across waves of ribbons, has scarcely been used more effectively in cinema.
Even without an understanding of its wider aims, Red Psalm still impresses in its scope and feeling. This was my first experience of Jancsó's work, and I can't wait to explore more - turns out there's no better time either, as Second Run are releasing a collection on November 21st.
The brand new 16:9 digital transfer has been approved by Jancsó himself, and it looks wonderfully crisp and clean. As usual with Second Run there's an accompanying booklet, this time authored by Peter Hames, providing context for the film and its director's body of work. Hames' is perhaps a little too academic, but his 20-page entry is still highly readable and informative. The sole extra on the disc is Message Of Stones - Hegyalja (1994), the third in Jancsó's Message Of Stones documentary series. I haven't managed to watch this yet due to my tight LFF schedule, but I promise I'll update this review with my thoughts sometime over the weekend. Overall, Red Psalm is another essential purchase from Second Run, who miraculously haven't released a bad title this year.