'One Day' ('Egy Nap'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Mother courage.

Hungarian rookie Zsofia Szilagyi's debut, about a struggling mother of three, premiered in the Critics' Week in Cannes.

A married Italian teacher and mother of three is so busy with her day-to-day routine that she barely has a moment to contemplate what’s really important to her in One Day (Egy Nap), the intense Hungarian debut feature from director Zsofia Szilagyi, a former assistant to Golden Bear winner Ildiko Enyedi (On Body and Soul). Shot in a handheld style and with a soundscape that doesn’t stop assaulting the senses — from crying kids to car alarms to spinning washing machines and dozens of other noises — the film does a great job of creating a fully immersive experience that really offers a window into the protagonist’s exhausting daily life.

But this success could, somewhat paradoxically, put a damper on the film’s commercial prospects. It’ll require a special sort of marketing genius to sell this film to the kind of people it depicts; what people like the protagonist will probably want is something uplifting or entertaining, not a suffocating reminder of what it’s like to be an unappreciated caretaker who’s largely invisible. That said, this slice of Euro misery is prime festival fare, as its Cannes Critics’ Week selection suggests, and might also appeal to a few boutique distributors willing to take a chance on a new Hungarian talent, as Szilagyi is clearly a name to watch.

Anna (Zsofia Szamosi) is married to Szabolcs (artist Leo Furedi), an overworked and underpaid lawyer, and they have three kids: forgetful, computer games-obsessed Simon (Ambrus Barcza), who’s still in primary school, his smaller but whip-smart sister, Sari (Zorka Varga-Blasko), and their baby brother, Marko (Mark Gardos). Anna teaches (badly dubbed) Italian part-time at a language school on top of being a mother full-time and also a wife to Szabolcs. 

The feature follows Anna for about 36 hours to get a sense of her routine, which includes getting the kids out of bed and dressed; feeding them; making sure they have everything they need for the day and then taking them to school or kindergarten; going to work and teaching; picking up the kids in the afternoon and taking them to ballet or fencing or cello lessons; worrying about money and a letter from the bank and dealing with household chores that have been on hold for too long; and then feeding everyone again, getting them clean and into bed and then starting all over.

If this last sentence was exhausting to read and you can’t imagine actually doing this for even one day, you are either probably a man or grew up with an army of nannies. Szilagyi succeeds in making painfully visible how much self-effacing effort goes into what’s possibly the least appreciated job on the planet: being a mother. No one thanks Anna but everyone expects her to remember and do a million little things every day, without which their own day could possibly end up being a disaster. And, thanks to Balazs Domokos’ nervy camerawork, Mate Szorad’s sometimes nearly staccato editing and that intentionally invasive soundscape, One Day also manages to create an atmosphere that’s an emotional approximation of what Anna is going through mentally throughout the day. Only at a few intervals — too few, clearly — does she crack a smile, like when she’s singing with her kids in the car or gets a few minutes to play with her youngest son.

The screenplay, written by the director with Reka Man-Varhegyi, has one other ace up its sleeve, which influences both the story and the structure of the narrative. It turns out that Szabolcs has been seeing a woman (Annamaria Lang), who also was a friend of Anna's, and that she’s in love with him though they say they haven't slept together — yet.

This piece of information, revealed early on, functions as a kind of ticking time bomb underneath Anna’s daily routine while it also influences the way we look at her behavior. Is she almost thankful she’s being distracted by all the quotidian things she needs to do every day so she doesn’t have to look at the bigger issues facing her? Or, on the contrary, are all these things getting in the way of her taking the time to take a step back and consider the potentially major havoc this knowledge and its possible future developments could have on her life and that of her family and kids? Could it be a bit of both?

For better or worse, for most of the time the potential threat feels like just another piece of background noise added to the mix. In that sense, the film conveys loud and clear the sort of crushing effect raising kids and looking after a family and a job 24/7 can have.

Szamosi, who starred in Kristof Deak’s Oscar-winning short Sing, looks haggard and hard-bitten throughout. Her Anna doesn't want your sympathy and is a foot soldier of motherhood who’s clearly put everything else, including her marriage, on the back burner. Even her career seems something that’s only interesting to her in that giving more lessons could provide her with more money for her family, though more lessons also means more time away from them, so it’s an almost impossibly tricky balance. Supporting actors, very much including the kids, are all solid, with the small family’s chaotic routines of overlapping dialogue at the kitchen table especially noteworthy for their exhausting, cacophonous naturalism.  

For the record, the film, which has a reported budget of around $350,000, is the second finished project from Hungary’s “Incubator” program for young talent.

Production companies: Partnersfilm, Sparks, Filmpartners, Prop Club, Hungarian Filmlab
Cast: Zsofia Szamosi, Leo Furedi, Ambrus Barcza, Zorka Varga-Blasko, Mark Gardos, Annamaria Lang, Eva Vandor, Karoly Hajduk
Director: Zsofia Szilagyi
Screenplay: Zsofia Szilagyi, Reka Man-Varhegyi
Producers: Agi Pataki, Edina Kenesei
Director of photography: Balazs Domokos
Production designer: Judit Varga
Costume designer: Maria Benedek
Editor: Mate Szorad
Music: Mate Balogh
Sales: Films Boutique
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)

In Hungarian
No rating, 99 minutes