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Family Nest (Bela Tarr, 1977)


   Family Nest, director Bela Tarrís realistic first feature (astonishingly made when the director was 22) about the 1970s Hungarian housing crisis opens with the quote: ďThis is a true story. It didnít happen to people in the film, but it could have.Ē Considering the proliferation of non-professional actors in this movie, that statement probably isnít too far from the truth. In a departure from the intensely stylized, heavily choreographed camerawork that dominated his later masterpieces made after Damnation, he shoots Family Nest in a verite style with direct, environmental sound, location shooting, and editing thatís a bit too rough to be artful. As such, itís a film thatís way more conventional than Tarrís later works, and not nearly as visually satisfying. The outlook of life here is so unrelentingly bleak that at one point when Tarr inserts a carefree montage at a local carnival that plays out with the accompaniment of pop music feels wholly out of place until Tarr concludes the sequence with a close-up of a character vomiting, a shock stunt that puts thing back on track. As in nearly all of Tarrís films, the dingy barroom is only escape from dingy houses that the characters live in, and alcoholism seems the inevitable reprieve from their miserable lives.


    The political mess that is Hungary during the Ď70s is represented in the microcosmic situation that the extended family at the center of the film faces. The external struggles of communism are combined with a home life filled with overbearing fascism, borne out of frustration with the ramshackle, tight-knit living conditions. Ceaseless political messages stream off the television courtesy of government sponsored news programs, and the din is worsened by the thin walls and close quarters of the apartment which makes it impossible to shut out. The examined family contains a mother, a father, two twentysomething sons, a daughter-in-law, and her daughter, and the film opens with the return of one of the sons from his extended stint in the military. Due to financial strain and governmental red tape in the housing dispersion process, all of the family lives under one very small roof. Itís a desperate and explosive situation in which nerves are shot and tensions frequently rise among the family members, and it becomes incredibly shocking to find out that the young coupleís two years of waiting for a flat of their own have only gotten them in a position where they need to wait two more years for one.


    They realize the futility of their struggle against beauracracy, but have nothing to do but struggle against it, and in Tarrís committed portrayal of their pathetic fight, his political rage becomes acutely felt. One gets the impression that Tarr is clearly outraged by the entire system and hopes that his film will cause enough rage in the viewer to upset it. Still, the filmís dialectical process is far too simple for its own good and disarms much of its hard won realism. After Tarr shows scenes in which the familyís overbearing patriarch reprimands his offspring for patronizing the local bar and committing adultery, he cuts to a scene where he shows the father engaging in these same activities. Despite any moralistic weaknesses, however, the audience is made acutely aware of the strains placed on those in this situation. The daughter-in-law, desperate to leave, has an astonishingly acted scene at the housing office that has her begging, being abrasive to, and appealing to the reason of the employee who controls her apartments applicationís fate, all to no avail. The series of compromises presented here results in a broken system that practically asks people to squat in living spaces that the government hasnít yet gotten around to assigning because the red tape required to get a home legally is so tangled. The final non-narrative interviews of the husband and wife, conducted separately, are heartbreaking, first and foremost because they show them confessing their disappointment and breaking down in tears for the first time separately, and not as a couple. Itís horrible to realize that after being together for seven years, theyíve moved toward none of their goals as a couple because of the pressure of the system, and as both clearly state that they believe a flat of their own would allow their relationship to begin improving, the dire situationís impossibility only becomes more pronounced.


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Jeremy Heilman