October, 2004, Drama

Some films work because they feature a fascinating story, or brilliant acting or stunning cinematography; but among the most compelling are those which transport their audiences into a specific, carefully constructed world so credible in its design and attention to detail as to make it more real than the everyday world in which we actually live. For a couple of hours at least, such an imaginary place can become very real indeed. Such a movie can be as somber as the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw imagined by Roman Polanski in The Pianist, as adventurous as the high seas locale of Peter Weir's Master & Commander or as lushly sumptuous as the 1950's suburban romanticism found in Far From Heaven--but to work, the whole must be seamless, for any false note can ruin the effect. A very tall order indeed and one not often achieved.

How stunning then, that 31-year Los Angles born-and-raised director Nimrod Antal, who moved to Hungary 5 years ago to live and work should be responsible for this fascinating examination of Budapest's subway system, fashioning a dark and eerily compelling underworld immediately recognizable to any strap-hanger whose travels have taken them into the belly of cities like New York, London, Paris and Saint Petersburg. The ring of authenticity marks every frame of this curious yet oddly appealing film and while its symbolism becomes a bit too obvious by the final fadeout, Kontrol casts an intriguing spell that's at once original and mesmerizing.

The Budapest system apparently doesn't have any facilities for individual ticket taking, so its trains are patrolled by "checkers" who have the authority to issue the underground equivalent of traffic tickets to those who've failed to produce proof of payment. Kontrol follows a small squad of these civil servants, who wander the length and breadth of the city's various routes cajoling or threatening fare-cheats--and occasionally finding themselves being battered by them. Streetwalkers and their pimps, teenage "runners" who deliberately engage members of the team, waifs riding from nowhere to nowhere to pass the time--the denizens of the trains are knowingly captured in a series of blackly humorous vignettes that allow the individual ticket inspectors to emerge as fully developed individuals. The leader of the squad, one Bulcsu, a refugee from the real world of work and conventional life who never goes "up top", sleeps in the system's various stations while conveying a sense of appealing existential angst to his colleagues and the sweetly nutty ingénue who rides the system day after day inexplicably dressed in a bear costume.

Antal hasn't bothered much with the plot he embeds in all this wonderful atmosphere; there's a mysterious killer who pushes passengers onto the tracks and a competition between Bulcsu and an arrogant fellow inspector to see which one can best survive running through the poorly lit tunnels in front of arriving trains, but the director seems content to conduct his tour of the subways with no clear destination in mind. A pulsating soundtrack performed by Neo accompanies the action which culminates in an after-hours costume party attended by an assortment of subway employees and passengers. The maiden who's been cruising the rails in her bear costume shows up dressed as an angel, taking Bulcsu by the hand and quietly leading him to the escalator that will return both of them to the city itself, a redemption as visually resonant and handsomely shot as everything else in this ambitious and invigorating film.

The Verdict? Definitely not for the cinematic faint of heart, but very worthy just the same. 

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