Heavenly Shift (Isteni muszak): Film Review

Heavenly Shift Still - H 2014

Heavenly Shift Still - H 2014

An impressive tragicomedy about how people can be worth more dead than alive in a market economy.

Hungarian director Mark Bodzsar's feature debut is a hilarious dark comedy about corrupt paramedics in the early 1990s.

An escapee from the 1992 Siege of Sarajevo finds himself in an entirely different inferno when he finds a job as a paramedic in post-Communist Budapest in Heavenly Shift (Isteni muszak), the remarkable and darkly funny debut of Hungarian writer-director Mark Bodzsar.

Clearly influenced by U.S. indie darlings of the 1990s, with Tarantino and the Coens only the most obvious inspirations, Heavenly Shift is nonetheless very European in the way it amalgamates political commentary, human behavior and cinematic references into one absurd, tragicomic whole. Bodzsar’s extremely enjoyable ride through a comically exaggerated underworld, in which corrupted ambulance workers are in cahoots with a funeral director who compensates them for new “clients,” premiered in Warsaw and should have a bright future on the festival circuit, with a potentially culty afterlife.

Half-Serbian, half-Hungarian Milan (Andras Otvos) manages to escape Sarajevo in the early 1990s, while the entire region is in flames. Because he’s a former medical student, he manages to find a job as a paramedic in Hungary’s capital. However, he soon realizes that the main doctor on the team, Fek (Roland Raba), and the driver, Kistamas (Tamas Keresztes), have taken the enjoyment of the newfound free market economy a step too far: they occasionally decide that a patient, especially one close to death, doesn't need their utmost care but is literally worth more dead than alive -- with a shady undertaker who operates out of a Chinese restaurant paying them handsomely for every delivered corpse.

There are some hilariously over-the-top detours, including a gory altercation with a neo-Nazi (Zsolt Nagy) that most clearly echoes the influence of Tarantino, as does the choice of the occasionally Western-sounding score. An absurd visit to a topless hair salon feels more Balkan-inspired in its juxtaposition of humor and sex, as does a subplot involving Milan’s girlfriend (Natasa Stork) who has stayed behind in Sarajevo and with whom Milan hopes to be reunited through an absurd scheme involving transportation inside a coffin with a passport from one of the ambulance’s many dead.

While not everything works, Bodzsar, who also wrote the screenplay, maintains an impressive batting average and manages to keep the tone over the top but nonetheless quite coherent and occasionally even insightful. The characters are not developed much beyond their basic outlines but the depiction of the world they live in, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, as a kind of eastern European Wild West is clearly exaggerated for effect but does reveal deeper truths about both that specific time and place as well as, more generally, human nature. The film’s graveside-set finale, meanwhile, is a beautifully choreographed gem of neo-farce that’ll have audiences rolling in the aisles with laughter.  

Assembly is thoroughly professional, with the precision work of editor Zoltan Kovacs helping land most of the punch lines.

Production companies: Union Film, Sparks
Cast: Andras Otvos, Roland Raba, Tamas Keresztes Sandor Zsoter, Natasa Stork 
Writer-Director: Mark Bodzsar
Producer: Istvan Bodzsar
Director of photography: Daniel Reich
Production designer: Gabor Valcz
Music: Gabor Keresztes
Costume designer:  Janos Bodzsar
Editor: Zoltan Kovacs
No rating, 107 minutes.