Sunday, 24 June 2012

Confidence (Bizalom) (István Svabó, 1979) DVD Review

Péter Andorai and Ildikó Bánsági in Confidence (Bizalom)...

István Svabó's wartime dramas (Apa, 1966; Mephisto, 1981; Hanussen, 1988, among others) have always shared the common theme of identity, and in Confidence (Bizalom), now receiving its first-ever home cinema release, the Hungarian auteur explores in intricate and deeply felt detail the effects of a relationship born between two people, János (Péter Andorai) and Kata (Ildikó Bánsági), under the most oppressive and unusual of circumstances; the rounding up of Jews in Budapest during the dwindling days of WWII. The couple are unknown to one another at the film's start, but are forced by war to nest away into the boarding room of an old married couple, adopting the spectre of a child named Judit as they pose as husband and wife. The anti-Nazi resistance was thriving in Hungary during this time, and as John Cunningham notes in his book Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House To Multiplex (Wallflower Press, 2004), the characters in Confidence are "swept along by the streams of history", forever destined to be parted during the liberation of Budapest, which saw fugitive freedom fighters (of which János, and Kata's husband Tamás, are two) reunite with their families. Naturally, confined to claustrophobic and uncertain quarters, János and Kata fall in love, and in many ways Svabó's film can be viewed as the tragic tale of a countdown to farewell - certainly it's among the director's most linear and socially grounded films, employing a two-tone colour palette and low-level natural light to muster an air of death and melancholy around its characters.

DP Lajos Koltai captures an indescribable beauty amid the melancholic, quasi-expressionist landscape of Confidence, which is largely realised in dual tones of grey and blue, lending the entire film a stark and somber air; it helps that most of its roads are empty, most houses bombed out or decrepit, and the crowds of faces that Svabó does focus on culminate into one black, mournful mass. Mostly, the film is locked into the interiors - one bedroom, adjoining bathroom, and kitchen-come-dining room - of the old couple's house, where János and Kata are forced to hide away with no news of their actual spouses. Here Koltai employs natural light, usually from a chandelier or - in one particularly striking scene - the flush of a naked bulb, hanging low enough from the dank ceiling to illuminate the faces of our protagonists. For much of the film's duration they are cloaked in darkness, the curtains remaining closed and the bedroom's peeling walls - as pale as János' increasingly worn face - seemingly growing drabber by the day. What this creates, along with the sparse and echoey sound design, is an atmosphere of complete isolation and abandonment; as if these characters are lost to the world, and in order to survive they must remain lost, hermetically enclosed in an environment which is both their prison and haven. This duality becomes more present in the film as the relationship between the couple begins to relax and take on different dimensions - when they give in to temptation (or perhaps just the impulse that requires them to feel something; anything) and make love, the frame is suddenly bathed in a warm orange glow, and the film becomes sensual and dangerous.

Svabó's screenplay, adapted from a story by him and Erika Szántó, is layered and authentic, centered around the affair between János and Kata, but still mindful of the broader social and political conditions which feed into and dictate its course. Their relationship can be neatly summed up in one exchange of dialogue, from Kata to János; "Could anybody still betray you? Do you trust anyone to that extent?" More than anything, perhaps, Confidence is a study of the perimeters of trust between two complete strangers, and whether or not their love could ever exist in the outside world. Is anonymity the sole thread on which their relationship hangs? Does Kata fall in love with János because she needs to be loved, or because he genuinely possesses qualities worth loving? Is he just a surrogate for Tamás? And does János love Kata, or simply imagine her as the ghost of somebody to whom he never planned to return? Their past lives are left at the door, and Svabó smartly allows the audience to fill in the narrative gaps and decide who these people were before war tore them from one reality and thrust them together into another. The performances go a long way toward hooking these ideas into a believable and compelling world, as both Andorai and Bánsági have such wrought and glasslike faces; they reflect the trauma of so many lives during this period, and Andorai especially looks hung and gaunt, as if the war is actually a disease writhing inside of him. Bánsági lends the film empathy through her subtle, haunted features, but in her moments of rage the actress centers the entire frame; it's impossible to remove your eyes from hers.

Much of Svabó's work has still to be released in the UK, and until everything has been contextualized and reevaluated, it would be unfair to call one film his best (honestly, he seems incapable of telling stories which are anything less than captivating), but from what we have now, Confidence can easily rank as his masterpiece. The acting is impeccable, the writing incisive and finely measured, and its mood impossible to shake. Trust me, that final, devastating frame will be lingering in your mind for days...

The Disc/Extras
Unsurprisingly, this newly restored transfer from Second Run, approved by Svabó himself, has been pored over and realised with the utmost care and precision. There's a lot of grain detectable in the image, but Koltai and Svabó's visual design was intentionally crafted to echo the sorrow of life in wartime, with the bleached palette and speck-flecked frame, gently infused with tones of grey and blue, heightening the drama and drawing us closer into the character's lives. The image has been notably enhanced, and especially in close-ups its clarity is striking, but what's really remarkable is how Second Run have stayed true to the director's ultimate aesthetic vision. The sound mix is also crisp and clear, with an effective balance between dialogue, diegetic sound and score throughout.

The 16-page booklet, penned by academic and author Catherine Portuges, offers an intriguing and beautifully written analysis of the film, which is considered within the wider sociopolitical landscape of its time, and Svabó's entire body of work. Naturally, though, the package's highlight is an interview with the man himself, located on the disc's extra features. Werner Herzog aside, Svabó has the most captivating vocal cadence and accent of any director around. His voice is dry yet animated, enunciating every syllable with such a precision as if his life depended on it. Honestly, Confidence is worth owning for his pronunciation of "French New Wave" alone. He's such a compelling speaker, and hearing him discussing his influences - especially Ingmar Bergman, whom he describes as being like "a glass of water" - is utterly fascinating. If anything, the interview - taken from a TCM programme, dated July 2008 - is too short at 20-minutes, and although Svabó covers much of his own career and the picture of Hungarian cinema in the 60s and 70s - plus, wonderful ruminations on working with Glenn Close on Meeting Venus (1991) - I could listen to him telling anecdotes for hours.

Confidence (Bizalom) is available from Second Run now...


  1. Wonderful review. Thanks for letting me know about this film. Heading off to buy it right now.

  2. The post is very informative. It is a pleasure reading it. I have also bookmarked you for checking out new posts. I wanted to thank you for this special read.