'Strangled' ('A martfui rem'): Film Review | London 2017

Dark and, quite literally, gripping.

Hungarian director Arpad Sopsits dramatizes the true story of a serial killer who terrorized a small Eastern Bloc town.

A sexually depraved killer is preying on female factory workers in Strangled, a stylishly grim period thriller from Hungarian writer-director Arpad Sopsits. Inspired by real events, this terse murder-mystery comes with an extra layer of political subtext, as it takes place during a sensitive period of Cold War history soon after relations between Budapest and Moscow were permanently scarred by the brutal crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

But even without the political history lesson, this solidly crafted true-crime story works just fine as a noir-ish police procedural with a punchy rhythm and a bracingly sour worldview. Already a prize-winning box-office hit in Hungary, Sopsits' film has clear festival appeal and possible art house theatrical potential, especially given the current small-screen vogue for subtitled murder dramas from Europe’s darker corners. Following its U.K. premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last week, Strangled is set to open in British and Irish theaters Nov. 17.

One summer night in 1957, a young woman is murdered as she walks home from her job at a shoe factory in the provincial town of Martfu. The woman’s spurned lover Akos Reti (Gabor Jeszberenyi) is the prime suspect, and Sopsits appears to place him firmly in the frame. Despite protests from his sister Rita (Szofia Szamosi), Reti swiftly confesses to the crime and is handed a death sentence, later commuted to 25 years in prison.

But fast-forward to 1964, and similar murders begin to recur around Martfu, even though Reti is rotting behind bars. One woman is strangled, raped and dumped in a river. Another is savagely beaten and left to die on a railway line, only to wake up in time to alert the police. Hard-bitten, chain-smoking detective Bota (Zsolt Anger) and ambitious young prosecutor Szirmai (Peter Barnai) soon realize they are dealing with a string of linked crimes stretching back years — which means the wrong man is in jail, his confession forged or beaten out of him.

Exposing the cracks in a supposedly flawless Communist justice system can only invite serious repercussions in a Soviet satellite state dependent on law, order and social conformity. With their careers hanging in the balance, Bota and Szirmai come under pressure to find a culprit and close the case as soon as possible. “There are no serial killers in this country — is that clear?” barks one regional party boss.

Government agents infiltrate the investigation, using bribery and threats to bully everyone into line. Meanwhile, Reti attempts suicide in jail after being repeatedly denied parole. And still the murders continue, with Bota and Szirmai risking their reputations as they gradually close in on the real killer, with grudging assistance from Rita. Justice of a bittersweet kind finally arrives in 1966, but the case has mostly negative consequences for everyone involved, some of them lethal.

Strangled takes place in an emphatically male-chauvinistic society of all-powerful bureaucrats, hard-boiled cops and domineering husbands. Sopsits does not flinch from showing the sometimes brutal sexism that prevails, including the ugly forensic detail of sexualized male violence against women. That said, the assault scenes are mostly fleetingly depicted and not luridly sensationalized. Peppered with obscenities, the dialogue is also earthy and raw, underscoring the kind of pugnacious macho rivalry needed to keep a police state functioning at ground level.

Dark and disquieting, Strangled is not an ideal first-date movie, just to be clear. At two hours, this gloomy slog occasionally feels labored and repetitive. But it is also a robust, atmospheric suspense thriller that shows how politics and personal ambition can have a toxic effect on justice. Local audiences may even see deeper parallels here with Hungary’s current authoritarian regime under Viktor Orban. In visual terms, Sopsits taps into a fairly conventional Eastern Bloc retro-aesthetic of dingy apartments, drab factories and nicotine-stained meeting rooms, though the surrounding countryside offer glimpses of pastoral beauty as welcome counterpoint. Joy and sunshine are possible in this noir-ish netherworld, but always just out of reach.

Production company: Focus Fox Studio
Cast: Karoly Hajduk, Monika Balsai, Peter Barnai, Zsolt Anger, Gabor Jaszberenyi, Szofia Szamosi, Zsolt Trill
Director-screenwriter: Arpad Sopsits
Cinematography: Gabor Szabo
Editor: Zoltan Kovacs
Producers: Gabor Ferenczy, Attila Tozser
Production designer: Rita Devenyi, Arpad Sopsits
Music: Mark Moldvai
Venue: BFI London Film Festival
Sales: HNFF World Sales

In Hungarian, with English subtitles
121 minutes

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