'Genesis' ('Genezis'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A pretty but poisoned apple.

Hungarian director Arpad Bogdan's second feature, after 'A Happy Life,' premiered in the Panorama Special section in Berlin.

The attack on a Hungarian Roma family that leaves only a 6-year-old boy standing is the glue that nominally binds three different stories in Genesis (Genezis), the ambitious but severely flawed sophomore feature from Arpad Bogdan. The strands focus on the innocent little kid, a teenage girl whose boyfriend falls in with a violent crowd and a young woman who’s a defense lawyer for the same young man after he’s been arrested for manslaughter with a racist motive.

Unfortunately, only the first strand really packs a punch and the fact that the stories are told not through crosscutting, but rather one after the other gives the audience the unfortunate feeling that the most compelling story is slowly receding into the distance as the films advances past its first 45 minutes. Nonetheless, this topical feature was clearly conceived for the big screen and therefore might score festival bookings — and perhaps even a few sales — after its Berlinale Panorama Special premiere.

The father of Ricsi (plucky yet soulful newcomer Milan Csordas) has just been sentenced to two years in prison when his family’s dilapidated country home is burned to the ground and his family members shot by a group of aggressive and racist men. Speaking of irony: the fact he committed an (unspecified) crime is basically what kept him alive. The nighttime attack on his family still at home is a messy, penumbral and largely out-of-focus affair. Bogdan actually gives more crucial information about what happens through the film’s elaborate sound design than through what’s shown on screen, cinematically rendering the chaos and confusion in a striking, stomach-churning way. The boy’s mother finally manages to open a window at the back of the house and send her son to freedom before she’s killed, and even then Ricsi too is shot in the back before he manages to clamber to safety.

Pestered at school by his classmates, who call him gypsy and worse, Ricsi finds himself isolated at school and in life. This leads to an extraordinary sequence in the woods, where the boy crawls onto the back of a pickup truck of a forester, amid the dead animals, and thus follows him home. His peers have told him the man and his family eat dog meat, which is why his skin is white, which makes him perhaps a perfect victim for any possible revenge plans from Ricsi. Cinematographer Tamas Dobos’ simple but thunderously effective use of shifting focus in one hair-raising crucial moment almost compensates for the scene’s on-the-nose use of a coddled baby and the plaintive notes of the score from Mihaly Vig, Bela Tarr’s regular composer, which risks more than once to tip over into something overly melodramatic. 

As an innocent victim of terrible circumstances who’s forced to fend for himself in a world he barely comprehends, Ricsi makes for a fascinating protagonist. The same isn’t quite true of Virag (fresh face Eniko Anna Illesi), a teenage girl who might be pregnant but nonetheless could go all Katniss Everdeen on any possible attackers, and Hanna (Anna Marie Cseh), an overworked young defense lawyer who has to take up the case of Virag’s boyfriend, Misi (Tamas Ravasz), who is accused of being one of the attackers on Ricsi’s home by a distraught Ricsi himself.

The main problem with the second and third strands is that Bogdan’s storytelling style here consists of a succession of short, often staccato scenes, which perfectly suggest the unknowing and distracted worldview of a child. But the teens and adults and their more complex understanding of the world require more time and explanation, which is often lacking, turning their stories into more impressionistic strands where it becomes difficult to get a handle on both the complexity of the characters and the details of their stories. How is it possible, for example, that the defense lawyer of Misi has direct and informal access to Ricsi, who is the main witness for the prosecution? The two leading ladies clearly have complicated lives, but we only get glimpses of them rather than a sense of the bigger picture. Bogdan, who also wrote the screenplay, also struggles to connect the various stories and characters, seemingly limiting himself to a few recurring leitmotifs like heads submerged underwater and burning animal carcasses that do little more than reinforce a general atmosphere of dread.

The cinematography and sound work, however, are clearly designed with the cinema experience in mind. Framing is especially noteworthy, with Dobos expertly alternating between all-telling closeups and wider shots that place personal tragedies within their much larger surroundings. And the idea that Virag needs a hearing aid is an inspired one, giving her the possibility to tune out some of the noise occasionally.

For the record, the events were loosely inspired by a wave of anti-Roma attacks in Hungary around a decade ago, which also inspired the 2012 Berlin competition title Just the Wind, from Bence Fliegauf.

Production companies: Mirage Film, Focus Fox
Cast: Anna Marie Cseh, Milan Csordas, Eniko Anna Illesi, Lidia Danis, Levente Molnar, Zsolt Kovacs, Tamar Ravasz, Istvan Szilvasi, Szofi Berki
Writer-Director: Arpad Bogdan
Producers: Andrea Taschler, Gabor Ferenczy
Director of photography: Tamas Dobos
Production designer: Kata Kovari
Costume designer: Zofia Ferencz
Editor: Peter Politzer
Music: Mihaly Vig
Sales: HNFF
Venue: Berlinale (Panorama Special)

In Hungarian
No rating, 120 minutes