Now that the 20th century is finally over, I guess it’s time to start re-interpreting it. Hopefully, summarizers of the century will follow the example of Hungarian director Istvan Svabo and honestly face the truth, no matter how painful. (Unfortunately, many intellectuals don’t always seem interested in the truth — especially about subjects like communism, which many continue to embrace.)
In Sunshine, Svabo looks back through the last 100 years of his country’s history for meaning, and finds some — enough to fill a three-hour, soapy epic about the century’s chaos. The film mostly works, and is a worthy addition to Svabo’s art.
Sunshine begins at the end of the 19th century, focusing on three young people who take Hungarian surnames and abandon the traditions espoused by their father, a Jewish entrepeneur named Emmanuel Sonnenschein (‘Sunshine’ in English). The ambitious son Ignatz (Fiennes, who also plays Ignatz’ son and grandson) rises to power in the Hungarian government, then goes down with the monarchy. His silly, free-spirited cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) deserts him over his conformity and allegiance to the regime; his brother (James Frain) turns communist.
After WWI, the focus shifts from this triangle to Ignatz’s son Adam (Fiennes again), who becomes an Olympic champion and public hero after renouncing Judaism, only to find his father’s admonishment not to trust in political power proved true. When the Nazis (‘philistines’ as one character describes them) overrun Hungary, Adam fails to save his family from being killed or scattered. Valerie is almost the only survivor. She is played in later life by Rosemary Harris (Ehle’s real-life mother), whose luminous performance is easily the film’s best.
Adam’s son Ivan (Fiennes once again) is scarred by watching his father’s murder at Auschwitz and, after the war, becomes an official in the equally brutal and philistine Communist Party. The Communists are also anti-Semites (because they hate the wealthy classes) and Ivan finds himself again imprisoned and dehumanized. At the end of the film, Ivan and Valerie remember their family and faith, and Ivan changes his name back to Sonnenschein, though the name is all he has left. His house has been confiscated; the furniture, keepsakes, and cultural artifacts that decorate the movie are thrown onto a garbage truck.
Sunshine clearly cost some bucks to make, and the result is the most meticulous recreation of a historical period that I’ve seen on film. The screenplay is not as flawless: some characters are sketchy and others are unappealing (especially Adam’s girlfriend, played by Rachel Wiesz) — though to be fair, only Valerie and Ivan live long enough to reach maturity. There are some superficial moments; some of the sex scenes are unpleasant and unrealistic. But ultimately, the film is redeemed by its religious core and its powerful use of images and themes, both good (love, freedom, civilization, family) and evil (politics, power, ambition, envy). The film starts off slow but gets better and better as it goes, building to a powerful, thoughtful conclusion.
In the film, Svabo clearly draws distinctions between good beliefs and bad beliefs. Aware that he has lost his faith and followed the false gods of political ideals, Ivan asks, ‘If there never was a God, then why do we miss Him so much?’ Among the film’s many characters, it is perhaps great-grandfather Emmanuel (played by David de Keyser) who comes off best, because he remains true to sensible beliefs.
On New Year’s Day of 1900, Ignatz predicts that the new century will be a time of ‘love, justice, and tolerance.’ Lots of people probably still think the 20th century was a time of greater love, justice and tolerance (along with modern improvements, walking on the moon, etc.) so it’s probably a good thing that the movie brutally underscores the irony of Ignatz’s prediction. The 20th century was the most murderous and ‘philistine’ century in history, in which Europe actually became less civilized. It was not a century of improvements but of ‘breaking all our inheritance’ (as one character says) and throwing it onto garbage trucks.
At the end of the film and the century, Hungary knows freedom for the first time in almost a century. But in a world that is becoming ever more ‘philistine’ (judging from say, Eminem’s new CD), less religious, and less diverse, will the next century be much better?
Highly recommended is the film’s DVD release, which features nothing in the way of extras aside from crisp Dolby sound and English subtitles if you want them… but Sunshine is the rare film that really doesn’t need anything extra to help it out.
All hail Ralph.