Review: Hungarian Western MIRAGE, A Visually Opulent Slavery Allegory

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
Review: Hungarian Western MIRAGE, A Visually Opulent Slavery Allegory
The Hungarian director of Bibliotheque Pascal, Szabolcs Hajdu, returns with yet another not so conventional oeuvre, Mirage. After the world premiere held at Toronto last year, the film enters the Slovak and Czech theatre circuit (Slovakia is a minor co-producer on the film) with the blessings of the lead character himself and a star from Jarmusch´ stable, Isaach de Bankolé, who promoted the film at the recently wrapped Febiofest film festival. 

"Far away from the capital city, country life perished. Criminal gangs occupy abandoned farms, bringing back slavery,"... These prefatory titles welcome viewers while explicitly disclosing the central theme they are about to witness. Francis (Isaach de Bankolé), who is on the run for bribing and match-fixing, nonchalantly walks the plain until arriving at a rural railway station in a Romanian ghost town. After a surreal and dreamy ride, he winds up in another rural town apprehended by locals and turned over to authorities. On the brink of being escorted to a prison, an unknown man (Dragos Bucur of Romanian New Wave films such as Police, Adjective. or the magnificent The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) surrounded by two wingmen on horses, rescue Francis, who is soon escorted to a farm forgotten on the vast Hungarian plains. 

Loosely based on the short story "A House on the Edge of the Map" by Hungarian writer Sándor Tar, Mirage is foremost an endeavor relying primarily on the power of images rendered in an opulent and intoxicating style. Experienced and awarded Hungarian director of photography, András Nagy, who operated camera on Hajdu´s previous feature and repeats the role on his next work based on Dostoevsky´s short novel (set in Las Vegas and currently in post-production), lenses Mirage in mesmerizing 35mm cinemascope. 

The images usurp the dominance encouraged by a rather loose plot. Nagy captures the essence of the scenes, transforming the film into an atmospheric piece. The slow-paced opening on a tiny ramshackle train station as a metaphor for the corner at the end of the world or the slow ride kicking-off with a subtle joke, while evolving into clearer existential tones present a highly visual and absorbing experience. This breaking away from the rigor of an action-driven plot, the film shifts towards a visual poem. 

Hajdu uses old-fashioned chapter title cards, sometimes at odd moments as during the final showdown, steering the whole scene into anti-climactic territory, twisting the genre convention and reaching another plane. The director opted for pictographs as chapter title cards sparred of any eeriness as they foreshadow the events to come yet reinforce the poetical dimension. 

Mirage is heavily marketed as a Hungarian western, or to be specific eastern. Although the obligatory genre props are well used, the genre framework serves as a vehicle for indictment of modern-day slavery. Hajdu remembers that under communist rule, Pusta (the Hungarian plain the film is set in) was known for prospering goose farms, however with the change of regime, jobless people remained in careless hands of farm owners working only for food. Farms, such as the one in the film, became a haven for criminals, being situated out of the sight of authorities. 

Eastern European countries widely contemplate and assess communism and capitalism back-to-back (a process that is mediated also through cinema), finding the bitter revelation the latter did not open the gates to the promised land as was expected. Hajdu uses Pusta as an unconventional ambiance in the same manner as the genre itself, to invoke the pitfalls of free market recoded into overly lyrical signs. It´s certainly a engrossing approach to address contemporary issues through such anachronism. The socio-economical statement dips a bit into aesthetic mysticism, though nowhere near the metaphysics of Jodorowsky´s El Topo, thanks to our DoP´s keen eye. 

Hajdu's latest effort sweeps the viewer up with such seducing visuals and atmosphere, which itself justifies the existence of the film. Those willing to proceed with the director's play on genre conventions might enjoy the slavery allegory, which more than hints at bureaucratic corruption and organized crime.

Mirage is now in general theatrical release in Slovakia and Czech Republic.
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EasternHungaryMirageSlovakiaSzabolcs HajduWestern

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