In the book “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” eminent film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about RED PSALM being “…dazzling…awesome…ravishing…striking…it may well be the greatest Hungarian film of its time…”; conversely, Miklos Jancso'’s acknowledged masterpiece THE ROUND-UP (1965) – which I adore – is conspicuous by its absence in that singular pantheon. Besides, the late great film critic Raymond Durgnat wrote extensively about this film in his very last article published in 2002. Furthermore, Jancso' won the best direction prize at the Cannes Film Festival when Joseph Losey (whom I admire a great deal) was the President of the Jury and where RED PSALM was competing against such remarkable contenders as Robert Altman’s IMAGES, Harry Kumel’s MALPERTUIS, Peter Medak’s THE RULING CLASS and Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS! Why is it, then, that my star rating is such a lowly one?
There is no doubt in my mind that this is a key work in the director’s canon (which makes my underwhelmed reaction all the more painful to me) but, frankly, this is truly a case where form completely overpowers content or, to put it in the apposite layman’s terms, a film which can only be admired but not enjoyed. The main reason for this is that the entire running time (a relatively modest 81 minutes in PAL mode) is taken up by Jancso'’s obsession with politics and folklore with no space left for any real characters to emerge much less a discernible plot line. This would hardly be a problem in itself where it not for the fact that when somebody takes a break from the constant – and by now familiar – communal dancing marathons (which, thankfully, does mean that some of the typically stunning girls get to shed their clothing), they do so only to spout a litany of Communist diatribes which completely wear the viewer (and the film itself) down before long. Although Jancso'’s exuberant visual style always had a certain aloofness to it, I really didn’t connect at all with any of the characters or events depicted here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is one time where the English subtitles (which, in themselves, are grammatically awkward and replete with spelling mistakes) distinctly felt like an intrusion and their verbosity detracted from the power of the meticulously composed images. Consequently, one’s enjoyment of the film as a whole suffers for it and given the generic, prosaic nature of the dialogue, I might well consider watching the film unsubtitled in the future! Amusingly enough, however, the Catholic prayer of Our Father is even blasphemously transformed into a Communist credo at one point.
Still, this is not to say that the film is completely worthless: the rebelling peasant farmers sing various songs (a couple of which are in English) that, while lyrically are merely propagandistic, are also melodically haunting. Given Jancso'’s penchant for lengthy, traveling sequence-shots (the film is said to contain a mere 26 in all!) which are, essentially, its true raison d’etre, some striking images can’t help but stand out, in particular the burning of a church by the peasants and their eventual massacre by the landowners’ army of defenders. Even more remarkable is Jancso' fusing his historical recreation with unexpected but decidedly welcome fantasy elements which sees dead people coming back to life with a kiss and, in an unheralded uproar to which nobody retaliates, an incensed peasant woman shoots several soldiers in quick succession single-handedly, etc.
As a result of my disappointing viewing of RED PSALM, I have decided to to take a sabbatical from Jancso' for now and postpone the three other films of his that I have in my possession to a later date (by which time, nevertheless, hopefully I would have acquired two more)…