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American Rhapsody, An
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by Thom

"Intimate portrayal of a lost girl in a world of conflict"
4 stars

Surprising that the executive producer who brought the world Rambo would get behind an intimate film about a teenager caught between her Hungarian roots and her American future. Suzanne (Scarlett Johansson, Ghost World), was unintentionally left behind the iron curtain after her parent's dramatic escape to Vienna in the early 1960's. Hungary had been overtaken by a Stalinist zeal to purify the ideology of the country and intellectuals, artists and the aristocracy were the target. Suzanne's parents were prominent members of the Hungarian elite and they faced prison and work camps if they stayed behind. Four years later, Suzanne "that little communist kid from Czechoslovakia" as she is called by the otherwise well-meaning but typically naive American suburbanite, finally lands in the middle class suburban neighborhood of her birth parents far from her country home and peasant ways of her foster parents. She never feels like she belongs and when she is 16 undertakes a journey to Budapest to settle some nagging questions about who she is and where she belongs.

What teenager hasn't felt like an alien who couldn't phone home? Nastassja Kinski plays Suzannes Mother, Margit and Tony Goldwyn (Bounce, The Pelican Brief) plays her father, Peter.

Peter is a prominent publisher and Margit is a member of the aristocracy. The state police are closing in. Peter is horrified that the free exchange of ideas has been choked off but he knows that in Communist Hungary, he is a dangerous man and therefore a wanted man. He arranges to be smuggled to the border with Margit and their older daughter while leaving their infant daughter, Suzanne, behind in the care of Margit's mother. At the last minute, Margit's mother panics and keeps the child. When Margit's mother is arrested, Suzanne ends up in the care of a childless peasant couple way out in the countryside.

Amidst much media hoopla, Suzanne is "rescued" from life behind the Iron Curtain. This is where the film gets interesting. We are taken from a farm in Hungary and into a bizarro world of tract homes, hula hoops, ketchup and outright rebellion. The shift is startling. It really is like seeing it as if it were new rather than familiar aspects of our cultural history.
Even the Fourth of July transforms from a spirited family holiday into a horrific reminder of war for Margit.

Suzanne grows up tortured by her very American older sister Maria (Mae Whitman) who has more privilege and freedom. Margit and Suzanne spar one last time and Suzanne decides she must go to Budapest. Margit reminds Suzanne that Hungary is a place where people disappear for saying the wrong thing. In spite of her mother's protests, Suzanne feels that she needs to go find the missing pieces of her life. The nagging memories of another life and other parents, the one's who she bonded with in infancy, haunt her.

While in Hungary, Suzanne reunites with Jeno and Teri (Balazs Galko and Zsuzsa Czinkoczi), her foster parents who has kept a virtual shrine to their "lost daughter". She also meets her grandmother, who not only tells her about prison life but reveals some startling facts about her mother. Suzanne is torn and must now decide where she belongs. She loves her Hungarian foster parents but she knows that she is a foreigner in Hungary. But in America, her mother won't leave her alone to just live her life.

The portrayal of American suburbs in the 1960's, while a bit exaggerated, makes the point that life is just life. American's are shown to be cut off from the world and living inside a glossy bubble but that was the way things were. Even in the 1970's, when I was in elementary school in Southern California, I remember learning about how awful communism and Hinduism was, how exotic Chinese food, let alone Chinese people, were and that blacks all lived in some unknown part of Los Angeles in horrible squalor. A lot has changed since then. Suburban neighborhoods, at least where I live, are racially mixed and the Cold War is over. That caught between worlds feel is the most important part of the film. There is an intriguing back story about the parents, but the focus zooms in on Suzanne's desire to find herself.

When Gardos went to Budapest to research her own story, she visited the house where she used to live and the owner came out and threatened them with guard dogs. She used this same idea in the film. Suzanne's grandmother shows Suzanne the estate where she was born, which has since been made into an apartment house, one family in each of the rooms with a shared kitchen and bath. Gardos joked, "so much for going home."

While in Hungary shooting the film, she did rediscover the Hungary she knew. "The Hungarian landscapes, the sense of the past that's alway's visible, the gypsy music, the Hungarian actors and crew who had fresh memories of living under communism, all created an extremely rich, and very moving environment." And like Suzanne, Gardos feels "like I have two homes: in America and in Hungary."

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originally posted: 08/25/01 13:03:25
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User Comments

3/08/02 barb very good 4 stars
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