Mari Torocsik, the Hungarian actress who appeared in István Szabó’s Sunshine and Costa-Gavras’ Music Box, died Friday after a long illness, the Hungarian National Film Institute confirmed. She was 85.
An iconic figure in her native country, where many consider her to be the greatest actress of modern Hungarian cinema, Torocsik appeared in more than 170 films, from her 1956 debut in Merry-Go-Round from Zoltán Fábri — she was cast while still in her first year at the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest — to her final starring role in the 2017 drama Aurora Borealis: Északi fény, from director Márta Mészáros.
Her debut, which premiered in Cannes, caught the eye of a young Francois Truffaut, at the time still a film journalist, who said the 20-year-old actress was, without knowing it, “the biggest star of the festival.”
Her role as Mari, a peasant girl betrothed to marry a wealthy landowner but in love with a poor member of a farming collective, made her an instant star at home. From 1958-61, while still finishing her studies, she acted in 10 features and became the face of postwar Hungarian cinema.
Torocsik was a regular at Cannes, where she appeared in Károly Makk’s Jury Prize-winning Love (1971) as the wife of a political prisoner who tends to her mother-in-law and keeps the truth about her son from the old woman, telling her he is abroad in New York making a film. (It’s a concept German director Wolfgang Becker would echo in his 2003 dramedy Goodbye, Lenin! in which a son, played by Daniel Brühl, keeps the truth of the fall of the Berlin Wall from his ailing, socialist mother).
Torocsik took best actress honor in Cannes in 1976 for Mrs. Dery Where Are You? from Gyula Maár, in which she played a 19th century Hungarian theater actress.
Cannes screened Love in its Cannes Classics program in 2016 and Merry-Go-Round in ’17, introducing a new generation to Torocsik.
International audiences also knew the actress from Fábri’s The Boys of Paul Street (1968) and Makk’s Cat’s Play (1975), both of which were nominated for Oscars.
Her biggest English-language roles came in films linked to Hungary’s past: in Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1989), about a Hungarian-American immigrant who is accused of having been a war criminal — she starred alongside Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl — and in Szabó’s Hungarian family epic Sunshine (1999), which featured an ensemble cast including Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris and Rachel Weisz.
She was married to directors Gyula Bodrogi from 1956 until their divorce in 1964 and to Maár from 1973 until his death in 2013.