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Reviews of the Lab Young Critics

Les Arcs International Competition: Beyond Politics - The Human Core of "Explanation for Everything"

by Kristina Tamelytė

In contemporary Budapest’s politically charged atmosphere, the third feature film by Gábor Reisz, Explanation for Everything, unfolds as a reflective piece. This is a beautifully crafted drama which delicately navigates the complexities of youth and political tensions in Hungary, offering a refreshingly neutral perspective on its characters and setting. The film, which competed at the Les Arcs Film Festival this year and won both the Cineuropa Award and Best Actor for its lead, newcomer Gáspár Adonyi-Walsh, stands out for its nuanced storytelling, subtle visuals, and profound insights into human nature, challenging viewers to reflect on the nuances of political and personal identities.

Central to the narrative is the character of Ábel Trem, brought to life with commendable subtlety by Adonyi-Walsh. In the first few shots of the film, the camera attentively lingers on Ábel’s profile and his nervous hands while he’s trying to study for his final exams. He is hopelessly in love with his best friend, star student Janka (Lilla Kizlinger). But Janka has a crush on their history teacher, the liberal-minded Jakab (András Rusznák), which causes Ábel to resent him. 

The story takes a compelling turn when the boy, fearing the reaction of his Fidesz-supporting father György (István Znamenák) to his failure at the oral history exam, seems to spontaneously come up with a story about his teacher’s alleged political bias. This perhaps accidental lie spirals into a political scandal after reaching a journalist working for a right-wing media outlet, which is depicted in a satirical way. She appears to be focused solely on her career advancement, crafting an article about the history teacher allegedly failing Ábel at the exam due to perceived political affiliations. This narrative generates significant societal backlash and Ábel gets a second chance at the exam. 

Ábel serves as a conduit for exploring the often unintentional but significant role individuals play in broader societal narratives. It appears he has no strong views or inclinations towards anything. And it is a challenge to try and determine the reason behind Ábel’s decision to quit the highly publicized second exam. Is it his morality or consciousness speaking? Or is it the rejection of Janka and the need to win her over, at least on friendly terms? Or just plain and simple inability to get through history’s final exams? The director constructs his narrative in a way that we just cannot know for sure. And that’s the beauty of Reisz's approach: not knowing the real reason behind various human actions. 

The director initially pigeonholes some of the characters into political archetypes, but then develops a more balanced portrayal, where protagonists are seen as flawed, multifaceted human beings rather than mere embodiments of political ideologies. A poignant example of this portrayal is seen in Abel’s father. Despite his strict disciplinarian nature and strong political leanings towards the conservative ruling party, an unexpectedly heartwarming moment occurs, highlighting the humanness of the character. The film’s refusal to conform to the trend of overtly politicizing its characters allows for an authentic and engaging narrative.

In a politically polarized setting, the choice of Rashomon-like storytelling becomes a good tool, accentuating the various perspectives while also encouraging the audience to question the very concept of truth itself. The film also ocassionaly evokes the naturalistic styles of Romanian New Wave directors, known for their blend of dark humor and realism. Cinematographer Kristóf Becsey opts for warmer colors to illuminate the film’s lighter tone, themes, and humor. In addition, he chooses to intertwine the naturalistic scenes of the dialogues with the passages that are more dream-like and atmospheric. 

Explanation for Everything is a delightfully funny yet intriguingly melancholic piece which could resonate with those who appreciate cinema that explores the intricacies of human relationships and the subtle interplay of personal and political dynamics, all without taking a definitive stance.

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