Toronto: Hungarian Filmmakers on the Personal Trauma Behind 'Pieces of a Woman'

Pieces of a Woman and inset of Káta Weber and Director Kornel Mundruczo
Courtesy of Tiff; Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images

Kornel Mundruczo and Kata Weber explore their own loss of a child in fiction form in the drama, starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn.

Hungarian filmmakers Kornel Mundruczo and Kata Weber have a reputation as fabulists. In the surreal opening scene of White God (2014), a young girl cycles through the eerily empty streets of Budapest, pursued by a pack of hundreds of dogs. In Jupiter's Moon (2017), a refugee is shot by police as he tries to escape through the woods. Instead of falling, he, miraculously, begins to float, then fly.

So it comes as a surprise that screenwriter Weber and director Mundruczo have turned to raw realism for their English-language debut, Pieces of a Woman. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star as Martha and Sean, a Boston couple that loses their daughter in traumatic home birth. As Martha struggles to deal with the loss, Sean and Martha's mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) search for someone to blame and sue the couple's midwife (Molly Parker) for criminal negligence.

The story is inspired by a real-life event, the loss of Weber and Mundruczo's own child. The film's plot, Weber says, is "highly fictionalized," and draws on the experiences of many other women who have lost children, but the emotional journey, particularly how a family deals with trauma, is "exactly my story." The court case, which seems a very American addition, is actually inspired by a Hungarian trial of a home birth advocate in 2010.

Pieces of a Woman is more personal than political, but, personally, Weber and Mundruczo are activists. For the Venice premiere of the film, the pair demonstratively wore T-shirts that said "Free SZFE", in opposition to the Hungarian government's takeover of the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. The regime of Prime Minister Victor Orban replaced the university's board, accusing it of being too liberal and not focusing enough on national, and Christian, ideals. Weber and Mundruczo currently live in Berlin.

Pieces of a Woman had its gala screening in Toronto on Sept. 13. Bron Studios is handling international sales.

Weber and Mundruczo spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in Venice about addressing taboos, why Vanessa Kirby is the new Cathrine Deneuve, and how film can be therapy.

Why did you want to tell your personal story of the loss of a child as a film?

Kata Weber: It may sound crazy because there are so many connections in the film with our lives, with my life and my family story, but when I started to work with the script, it was not very obvious that it is going to be my emotional journey, or that it is going to be something so personal. Initially, I wanted to depict a conflict, and I wanted to discuss a taboo, but the personal part was a little bit hidden, hidden from me, too. During the writing, I saw how much my personal experience affected me, how personal it is, and how deep I feel the connection with this person, Martha, who I am writing about.

How close is the story of the film to your own?

Weber: Basically, the story about being a member of a holocaust survival family, and being a certain generation within the family. That is exactly my story. I wanted to talk about how these families deal with traumas, and how they give from one generation to another a certain pattern of how to deal with tragedies. For me, it was really important, because I think it can be a burden on someone, a disaster if you cannot find your own personal way to grieve.

I also wanted to talk about my experience with a dead child and how this creates huge isolation. People tend to ask you to move on, but the person who has this kind of isolation and longing for the lost one, moving on is the last thing she would ever want.

Kornel Mundruczo: What is also very encouraging and beautiful is that there is an aspect of art that you cannot talk about in real life but you can talk about in art, as a therapy. We didn't really talk about that issue at home. It was kind of quiet. It was like, as we say in Hungary, under the table. No one was really facing it. Then I found in a notebook a few pages of dialog [from the play] between a mother and a daughter under the title "Pieces of a Woman," and I started to understand something. About what this quiet was about and about this experience that we tried to hide and not talk about.

As we started to work on the script, I mean not we, as she started to work on the script, we began to feel that creating a structure, turning it into art, could help to destroy the taboo around the story. It's a very personal movie. But it is not just our story, it's the story about what we don't want to talk about, what we don't want to face. When we spoke to Vanessa Kirby, we told her: "We don't want to talk about our experience, you have to find your own experience in this character."

How did you cast Vanessa Kirby? This role seems quite different from the others she has played on screen.

Mundruczo: I was quite a fan of hers from The Crown. When she read the script, she was so touched that, in 24 hours, she flew to Budapest and we sat down. Right away, I felt something very special in her. A little bit like Catherine Deneuve or Hanna Schygulla, this kind of '70s, early '80s, classic actress, who has a strong personality and who can also tell a story even with quietness. I was like: "It's her. She's my Martha."

Strong women and the female experience seem to be at the core of this story. Shia LaBeouf's Sean, in contrast, is the epitome of a weak man.

Weber:  Yes, yes, exactly. The whole story for me is about women and motherhood. The connection between a mother and child, even an unborn child, is an eternal connection. And it is stronger than anything.

I think it is so interesting that Holocaust survivors tend to feel that survival is the ultimate and only knowledge you have to pass on to your daughter. But there are certain situations where this just doesn't help, right? Being the best survivor doesn't help if you are in the midst of this kind of tragedy. Another aspect is the desire to always be perfect, to always try to fit in. Many times Jewish mothers try to encourage their daughters to be always perfect, and fit in, because of the Jewish past and all the horrors they went through because of "not fitting in" within the society.

This for me was crucial in Pieces of a Woman. Martha is the girl who has never failed before. And she feels now that she has to choose her own path, how to deal with the tragedy in a way that is not her mother's way.

The trial in the film adds a very American, legal aspect to the story, about who bears responsibility for the tragedy.

Mundruczo: It actually comes from a case in Hungary against a midwife, which was incredibly important for the whole society, and it was huge, even bigger than we made it in the movie. It was a very political case about the question of who owns your child's body: the state or you as the woman? And can you decide where you want to give birth or not? We met this midwife [who was given a two-year prison sentence but later pardoned] a couple of times, and she was very inspiring. One sentence she told us is in the movie: "the newborn has to decide when she wants to be born."

Weber: Yes, that this is the first act of liberty that you can give to your child. That he or she decides when they want to be born.

How does it feel to premiere your film in Venice amid all the coronavirus safety measures, with the masks and temperature checks?

Weber: Honestly? It feels crazy. Very weird.

Mundruczo: It's a huge limitation. But an amazing celebration at the same time. So I feel good. We can watch movies together again. We have to be stronger than COVID. It's a big message. So, limitation and celebration at the same time.