Hungarian director Adam Csaczi’s assured debut feature, Land of Storms, is a potently atmospheric drama of three young gay men wrestling with their sexuality in an unaccommodating environment. Unfolding mainly in lonely rural flatlands that seem to belong to a forgotten Europe, the film is emotionally and erotically charged yet free from melodrama, even when it moves inexorably toward the somewhat inevitable martyrdom of one of its characters. Driven by compelling internalized performances from its easy-on-the-eye leads, this is a steamy, stylish entry that will entice specialized gay distributors. TLA Releasing has already acquired rights for the U.S., U.K. and other territories.
Cinematographer Marcell Rev’s beautifully composed low- and high-angle opening shots establish right off the bat that the director has a fully developed visual sense. The film’s central focus is the sexual awakening of Szabolcs (Andras Sueto), a talented Hungarian soccer player on a German team, all of them first seen spread out like youthful splendor in the grass after a hard round of practice.
In brief scene fragments we see his breezy rapport with his teammates – they get tattoos together, watch straight porn, and attempt to contain their pre-match nerves before a crucial faceoff. When that clash goes badly and Szabolcs’ team leadership is criticized, a fight ensues in the showers with his closest friend, Bernard (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Disillusioned by the experience, Szabolcs skulks off to Hungary. But instead of returning home to face the disappointment of his father (Lajos Otto Horvath), who is his main reason for pursuing a soccer career, Szabolcs takes up residence in the dilapidated prairie farmhouse his grandfather left him.
When he catches hunky villager Aron (Adam Varga) trying to steal his motorbike, the chastened guy sticks around to help him fix the leaking roof. A friendship develops, with mutual attraction surfacing during a night on the schnapps. Though while Szabolcs acts on the impulse, Aron initially hides behind his drunkenness to stay outside the experience. He loosens up as barriers are broken down, but the pressure of his religious beliefs, his needy mother (Eniko Borcsok), a sometime girlfriend (Zita Teby) and the homophobic local youths fuels his conflict.
Both Szabolcs and Aron endure separate experiences of violence as word gets out about them. However, a fresh problem arrives when Bernard turns up, declaring the affections he kept concealed in Germany. The romantic triangle becomes almost idyllic for a time, infused with tenderness, but jealousy and external forces quickly intrude.
In less accomplished hands, much of this might be standard-issue gay drama dominated by angst. But while it’s not without clichés, Csaszi and co-writer Ivan Szabo lend soulfulness and seriousness to the characters, in addition to refreshingly frank treatment of their physical relationships. There’s something unexpectedly affecting about Szabolcs’ desire for a life of simplicity in which to gain fuller knowledge of himself (he even starts beekeeping), and there’s strength of character in his decision to stay there after exposing Aron to hostility, rather than escaping to someplace more accepting.
While Sueto’s taciturn but disarmingly direct character is very much the heart of the film, the three lead actors are equally persuasive. They convey a touching sense of young men learning to trust themselves and one another during an uneasy personal process. The path of Aron, in particular, is well drawn. He seems as aware as we are that if Szabolcs hadn’t turned up he might have avoided, whatever the cost, facing a part of himself that causes him shame and anger.
In addition to the naturalness of the cast, the striking settings are a key part of the film’s effectiveness. The summer storms rolling in over painterly widescreen shots of countryside that’s both gorgeous and desolate might be a little obvious as a metaphor. But this is an absorbing drama, veiled in melancholy and also laced with moments of sexy, liberating self-discovery that will stir poignant memories of youth for many gay men. It sure kept me awake and glued at an 8:30 a.m. screening.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production companies: Proton Cinema, in association with I’m Film, Cafe Film, Unafilm
Cast: Andras Sueto, Adam Varga, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Eniko Borcsok, Lajos Otto Horvath, Uwe Lauer, Kristof Horvath, Zita Teby
Director: Adam Csaszi
Screenwriters: Adam Csaszi, Ivan Szabo
Producers: Eszter Gyarfas, Viktoria Petranyi
Director of photography: Marcell Rev
Production designer: Nora Takacs
Music: Csaba Kalotas
Costume designer: Klara Kalicz
Editors: Tamas Kollanyi, Julia Hack
No rating, 105 minutes