'The Citizen': Film Review

Courtesy of ArtMattan Productions
Couldn't be more timely.

An African refugee falls in love with a Hungarian woman while trying to attain citizenship in Roland Vranik's drama.

It's not surprising that Roland Vranik's 2016 Hungarian feature is just now receiving a domestic theatrical release. It's a deeply moving examination of the current white-hot social issue of immigration, depicting the travails of an African refugee desperately trying to attain Hungarian citizenship. Beautifully acted by its ensemble of mostly non-professional actors, The Citizen puts a very human face on a topic that has inflamed much of the Western world.

The film's central character, Wilson (acting newcomer Dr. Cake-Baly Marcelo), is a middle-aged political refugee from Guinea-Bissau living in Budapest who lost his wife and daughters during the internal strife in his homeland. In Hungary he works as a security guard but has failed the rigorous citizenship exam several times. His sympathetic female boss Eva (Tunde Szalontay) suggests that her sister Mari (Agnes Mahr), a history teacher, personally tutor him before he takes the test again.

Rather than put him through the usual paces, Mari brings Hungarian history alive by shepherding Wilson around the city and guiding him on tours of important cultural sites. Along the way, the lonely immigrant and the unhappily married teacher form a close personal bond that eventually turns romantic. Mari promptly leaves her husband and moves in with Wilson at the apartment he illicitly shares with Shirin (Arghavan Shekari), an undocumented Iranian woman he took in after she showed up at his door looking for his former roommate and begging for protection. Not long after she arrived, the heavily pregnant Shirin gave birth to a baby which Wilson helped deliver.

Thanks to Mari's tutelage, Wilson finally passes the test. "I'm going to be Magyar!" he exults. Shortly afterwards, he even wins the supermarket's "Employee of the Year" award. But despite the personal victories the couple still has troubles to face. Mari's sister disapproves of her new relationship: "Doesn't he smell different?" she asks. Mari's husband and grown son physically attack Wilson at his workplace. And Mari finds herself increasingly uncomfortable living with both Wilson and Shirin, especially when he suggests marrying Shirin now that he's a citizen so that she can remain in the country legally. One night, the police raid the apartment and unceremoniously drag Shirin and her baby away.

Despite its occasionally melodramatic and contrived plot elements, the screenplay co-written by Vranik and Ivan Szabo never succumbs to bathos. The filmmaker keeps a firmly controlled handle on the material, presenting it an understated style that makes its obvious messaging go down easy. The outstanding lead performances add greatly to the movingly subtle effect; Marcelo (who came to Hungary as an immigrant himself) delivers a quietly dignified turn that signals his character's internal pain through his eyes and low-key vocal delivery, while Mahr vividly conveys Mari's blossoming as she rediscovers her humanity and sexuality.

The Citizen hardly breaks new dramatic ground, dealing in themes that have been dealt with cinematically numerous times before, including Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, to which it bears an obvious similarity. Sadly, its humanistic message has only become more urgent in the decades since that film was made.  

Production: Popfilm
Distributor: ArtMattan Productions
Cast: Dr. Cake-Baly Marcelo, Agnes Mahr, Arghavan Shekari, Tunde Szalonty, Mate Haumann, Peter Barbinek
Director: Roland Varanik
Screenwriters: Roland Vranik, Ivan Szabo
Producer: Karoly Feher
Director of photography: Imre Jubasz
Editor: Lili Makk
Composer: Csaba Kalotas
Costume designer: Kriszta Szakos
Casting: Lorand Banner-Szucs

109 min.