Égi bárány, or Agnus Dei, deals with the period in Hungary's history immediately following the overthrow of the Bela Kun Commune in 1919. Hungary, like the other units of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, suffered from chaos and civil war following the breakup of the empire at the end of World War I. For a short time, the Commune, a communist faction, governed Hungary. It had considerable military support from the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. The movie shows communards attempting to hold on to power in a rural area. They have (but do not welcome) the support of a wild, epileptic priest. The story is told using dialogue from Hungarian folklore and the Bible. Peasants are swept up in waves of violence as supporters of Admiral Horthy and the Reds struggle for control.1
“It was the last century’s impossible dream: a double vanguard, radical form in the service of radical content. There were moments—the Soviet silent cinema, Brecht’s epic theater, Surrealism perhaps, the Popular Front anti-fascism of Guernica and Citizen Kane, the promise of underground movies. And then, from the very back of beyond and close to the fashionable heart of international modernism, for a half dozen years from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies, there was Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó.”
“Jancsó made feature length films with an avant-garde sensibility and a liberal use of reel-length single-takes, resulting in some films with an average shot count of 12 or so. Even as every aspect within the frame shifted and changed focus, somehow Jancso’s travelling shots are never montage by proxy. He often described the technique as calligraphic, writing the film with his camera as a pen. Often there are enormous quantities of performers, organised into symbolic groups and choreographed in ritualised movements. The focus shifts between actors crossing stately in front of a camera that shifts angles incessantly. The camera rarely rises above the action, moving on a horizontal plane, with almost ascetic adherence. Only if the action can be viewed from a natural raised hill is an overhead shot allowed, as in the iconic final battle charge in Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and The White, 1967). Even when meaning is obscure, the films can be enjoyed for the almost tactile immersion in to cinematic space they afford.
However much the long-take is unmistakeably Janscó’s prime formal legacy, in time it begun to feel like a yoke around his neck. In interviews late in his life, he disputed its importance to his films and rued the fact that some saw his reliance on the long- take style as a limitation on his part, or worse, that he was merely exploiting a stylistic gimmick. No doubt, for a while there, such criticism had the effect of hastening his dismissal to the footnotes of cinematic fashion.”
“I’m well aware that most people think that my best films were made during the 1960s. In fact there was a poll taken by Hungarian critics this year to choose the best forty films made in the forty years since Hungary’s liberation by the Soviet army, and five of these forty films were made by me and all five were made during the 1960s. There seems to have been a return to an earlier outlook, in the sense that people now prefer to see relatively simple stories told in a relatively realistic style, and these films would fit into this category. Of course, they were considered rather unusual and different at the time they were made, but, even so, they were not all that different from the normal, so-called realistic style. If I were to look at them again, I would probably be surprised myself at how well they fit into the mainstream of realistic film making of the period. I think all this explains why my later films have not been so popular. By ‘later’ films I mean those starting with Égi bárány (Agnus Dei) in 1970.”
Miklós Jancsó in an interview with Graham Petrie4
“Reviewers of Antonioni’s films had joked about how the Italian director was turning ‘the talkies’ into ‘the walkies’. With Jancsó, the walkies turn into cinechoreography, or cinematic ‘choreo-caligraphy’, or ‘camera ballet’ (although this last term had first been used in relation to Antonioni). Neither passively recording the spectacle, nor personified as an ‘invisible observer’ who tries to keep up with a rapidly changing situation that he/ she cannot predict, the camera participates in the construction of cinematic space for effects of surprise and suspense. What lies off-screen or beyond the frame – and either invades the frame suddenly, or is disclosed to us by the camera moving without any cuts, extending homogenous space – is unpredictable. As Kovács explains, the surprises originating in off-screen space (made possible not only by the framing, but also by the discreetly ‘unrealistic’ suppression of noises which might have alerted us) train the viewer in a tense awareness that, at any moment, the arbitrariness of the camera movement and the camera angle might conspire to hide important information from his or her eyes.”
- 1Claire Fountain, All Movie Guide.
- 2J. Hoberman, “Red Modernism,” Film Comment, September-October 2006.
- 3Christopher Mildren, “In Memoriam: Miklós Jancsó (1921-2014),” Senses of Cinema, March 2014.
- 4Graham Petrie, “I haven’t changed, the world has Miklós Jancsó interviewed,” Kinoeye, Vol. 3, Issue 4, 3 March 2003.
- 5Andrei Gorzo, “Miklós Jancsó Before and After the Revolution,” N.E.C. Ştefan Odobleja Program Yearbook 2013-2014, retrieved from Academia.eu.