`Rhapsody' loses art of storytelling

Review: Movie fails to live up to promise offered by plot.

September 15, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Every person is supposed to have at least one story to tell: his or her own. But that doesn't mean we all have the skill to do our stories justice.

The writer-director of An American Rhapsody, Eva Gardos, does have an amazing tale. In 1951, her wealthy, cultured mother and father fled Budapest with her older sister. Because Eva was an infant and unfit to make the journey, they left her behind. Until age 6, she lived with a peasant couple who loved her as if she were their child. When the Red Cross helped reunite her with her parents in America, she found herself wondering if her real home was with them or with her guardians back in Hungary.

For a movie with such a vibrant real-life base, An American Rhapsody is surprisingly low-impact. You hope for the filmmaking equivalent of a successful hypnosis, one that brings back, all at once, tactile details, psychological insights and the aura of a just-past era. Disappointingly, this picture provides little of that. Gardos, who worked as a production assistant on Apocalypse Now and became a film editor on other movies, including Mask, seems to be musing on celluloid about the equal amounts of hardship placed upon her parents, their surrogates and herself, rather than reliving with blistering immediacy her traumas and catharses.

The movie may suffer from her own personal fairness doctrine as well as stock characters and slack dramaturgy. The picture, playing at the Charles, starts with the Eva-figure, Suzanne, reminiscing about the family history that prompts her at age 15 to abandon her birth mother and father and return to Hungary and her guardians.

The first section depicts her parents' flight from Stalinism (her father and his brother, book publishers, are suspect intellectuals). They place their lives in the hands of a scruffy smuggler, who almost reneges on taking her older sister, and then extorts the additional payment of her father's expensive watch - resulting in a dangerous moment on a railroad car filled with Soviet troops.

There's nothing inspired about the moviemaking here, but this sequence is undeniably gripping. There are a couple of wrenching vignettes: the mother's hair catching on barbed wire; Suzanne's maternal grandmother dismissing a smuggler who intends to cross the border by giving the baby sleeping pills and tying her up in a potato sack.

But once these decisive moves are made, Gardos cuts predictably between Suzanne's country home, which is almost a parody of wholesomeness, and the rest of her family assimilating with varying degrees of success into an all-too-sleek and confident New World. The contrasts between the supposedly organic peasant culture and the plastic, pop-dominated U.S. seem too easy. (Suzanne's prized possession is the miniature tea set her Hungarian ma and pa gave her for her fifth birthday.)

I'm more suspicious of these contrasts now that I know Gardos didn't emigrate to Southern California or go through a rockin', smokin', cruisin' American adolescence, as Suzanne does in the film. She joined her folks in Montreal and went to an English boarding school.

Kelly Endresz Banlaki, who plays the young Suzanne, is a porcelain doll. Still, she can't compete for our affection with the deep, haunted glow of Nastassja Kinski, ceaselessly writing letters on her behalf as her mom.

Gardos inadequately fleshes out the family conflicts. When Suzanne rejoins the clan, her sister treats her as nastily as the human son treats his robot brother in A.I. On her first morning in America, Suzanne dresses in peasant garb, wanders through her parents' suburb and gets lost amid the houses and cars; a lady recognizes her as "the little communist girl from Czechoslovakia" and takes her home. That's the last inventive scene.

When Suzanne grows up (and Johansson takes over the acting chores), her mother turns Old World-protective, locking her bedroom door and putting an iron grill on her window. So Suzanne takes a trip back to Hungary and finds out why her mother and father left.

All along, the mother's paranoia is more touching than Suzanne's rebelliousness. They agree that their family isn't like other families. But we have to take on faith that Suzanne's teen sullenness specifically relates to her mother's wounded psyche. Too much happens off-screen, and then too much happens too quickly. The movie becomes a succession of confrontations, reconciliations and abrupt disclosures of distant agonies. At the end, the mother says, "We are who we are because of our past; you taught me that."

We're left wondering: When?

`An American Rhapsody'

Starring Tony Goldwyn, Nastassja Kinski and Scarlett Johansson

Directed by Eva Gardos

Rated PG-13 (violence)

Released by Paramount Classics

Running time 103 minutes

Sun score * *

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