The following review is being written after a single viewing of Zoltán Huszárik’s Szindbád. Of course, this one-time approach is generally standard practice, but it’s worth pointing out in this instance given the richness of the film at hand. Adapting a number of short stories by surrealist author Gyula Krúdy, or rather “remixing” them as Peter Strickland puts it in his on-disc appreciation, Huszárik’s take on the material is far from conventional. Szindbád is constructed as a series of memories which interweave and overlap courtesy of its director’s complex editing techniques and firmly visual approach. This level of interaction is such that many intricacies will no doubt escape the viewer on an initial screening; from the opening shots onwards it becomes immediately apparent the use of montage is working beyond mere aesthetic concerns and instead contributing to a rich tapestry of juxtaposition and significance. As such what follows is a summation of that first taste and the immediate pleasures contained within. The intention is to instead do justice to the initial rush Szindbád creates and, hopefully, this is just as valid a take. I can only imagine that Huszárik’s film gets better with each viewing, and certainly not worse, meaning the plaudits below should count under whatever circumstances you are watching this disc.
Arguably the fact that Szindbád is so immediate in its impact helps immensely to the casual viewer. This is the kind of film which you can sit someone in front of for just a few minutes - the pre-credits sequence alone should do the trick - as that is all that’s required to get them hooked. The effect is such that there is little need to provide context as an enticement. Moreover, that context is somewhat hard to come by, especially in terms of readily apparent reference points. Lead actor Zoltán Latinovits, for example, is one of Hungary’s major performers, yet his work is little seen in the UK (although regular purchasers of Second Run’s disc should recognise him from Miklós Janscó’s The Round-Up). Similarly director Huszárik’s other films have been barely seen here, whilst author Krúdy is hardly the most widely read. With that said there is a reputation that precedes the Szindbád, one which - in the UK at least - has been steadily building over the years. I first became aware of the film when David Robinson included it as a key film in his Chronicle of Cinema 1895-1995, which was serialised as supplementary magazines to Sight & Sound in the mid-nineties. Since then, again in Sight & Sound, it has been selected as one of 75 Hidden Gems (by Michael Brooke, who also contributes a massive booklet essay here) and regularly done exceptionally well in Hungarian polls determining the best of its national cinema. (One wonders if this release, and therefore increased exposure in the west, will see the film do likewise in more internationalist surveys…) Yet interestingly, even within the context of Hungarian cinema Szindbád still feels somewhat unique. Whereas the popular images are those courtesy of Janscó and Béla Tarr - long takes, more often than not captured in black and white - here we find dazzling colours and the quick cut.
This emphasis on the aesthetic therefore prompts reference points from other directions, ones that encompass Nicolas Roeg, Walerian Borowczyk and experimental cinema. The editing techniques, with little recourse to linear construction, readily recall those of Roeg, especially the opening sequence to Don’t Look Now. Meanwhile the attention to minor details and feel for the more tactile elements is pure Borowczyk, albeit with his trademark eroticism toned down to some 15-warranting “sexualised nudity”. As for experimental filmmakers, Stan Brakhage is amongst those mentioned by Strickland in his appreciation, although any with a central focus on the edit or the purely visual will do. Certain sequences - the one that appears pre-credits, the food scene, the opening and closing dances - could exist as sumptuous standalone shorts, and be readily re-watchable at that. Yet I’m hesitant to focus too much on the look and feel of Szindbád without also mentioning its connection to the narrative structure. The film is framed as the memories of a, presumably, dying man, the Szindbád of the title. His recollections are of the women in his life, each prompting different textures, seasons and moods as they encroach on proceedings. The blend is such that no clear demarcation is made between previous loves, or at least not in a strict chaptered form, say. Rather we shift between timelines, catching only small instances of dialogue and therefore relying upon the visual elements to the greater extent. In adopting experimental modes and methods Huszárik makes this enigmatic approach all the more mysterious. Certainly there’s a logic behind it all - effectively the viewer is positioned within Szindbád’s head, watching his recollections as they pass by and intermingle - but also something of a puzzle that requires deciphering. Arguably that is for later viewings; on an initial watch it is far easier to simply let the visual splendours wash over you and make only tentative grasps at the subtler aspects occurring below the surface.
But of course that isn’t to say that any emotional undercurrents are completely lacking, or too obscure, at first glance. Szindbád is loaded with longing, regret and loathing as it/he delves into the past. The lovers of yesteryear which occupy the memories, and therefore much of the running time, are curiously unloved, Szindbád never really having any genuine connection with these women, even if some became his wife. He seems to exist objectively, forever looking over the puzzle that was his life, a ‘quest’ in which we share. He may not know the answers or even where the answers lie, hence this continual replaying of events and collision of events as they make their way onto the screen. All we have are the visual glories they prompt and the emotions they evoke, the latter becoming all the more poignant as we witness farewells and final meetings, the presence of death always nearby. Yet such a mood is tempered by the palette and its glorious colours, so much so that the overall tone is more decadent than elegiac, still bursting with life even as it is coming to an end. Indeed, this is never more so than in the much celebrated food sequence. Here course and course is treated to loving close-ups and zooms, their differing textures occupying the screen in a manner which can only be described as fetishistic. At times it’s impossible not to salivate, at others it’s all too much - too rich, too decadent.
On paper this may come across as somewhat contradictory: a film infused with death and dying and a distant past that is nonetheless full of continual glories and surprises which balance out the, at times, bittersweet nature. On the screen, however, it all makes sense and blends into a fully cohesive whole. No doubt further viewings will allow for a greater understanding of this overall shape, and this is just one of the reasons why I’m eager to return to Szindbád as soon as possible. Another is simply to revisit its many magical moments: the aforementioned scene in the restaurant; the two girls dancing in gentle sunlight; the tiniest of edits which allow for a remarkable emotional depth. Another is that this is simply a great film and one which I’m sure many will be overjoyed to finally see on an excellent disc. The 8/10 rating in the left sidebar is simply a tentative as I’m loathe to go higher after seeing a film only once (although exceptions do occur), in other words you shouldn’t read too much into it as the bottom line is that Szindbád comes highly recommended. Hidden from UK viewers for so long, it comes with a genuine sense of discovery.
Second Run are releasing Szindbád onto DVD in the UK onto a dual-layered disc encoded for all regions. The film is packaged with an accompanying 20-page booklet and comes with an additional on-disc extra in the shape of a 12-minute appreciation from Peter Strickland, director of Katalin Varga.
Save for the odd speck of dirt and the ‘cigarette burns’ to mark a change of reel, Szindbád looks absolutely flawless on this disc. The film retains its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is anamorphically enhanced, comes with optional English subtitles (in a new and thorough translation) and is quite simply gorgeous. Indeed, I would go as far as to call this Second Run’s finest presentation to date - and that’s including their more contemporary releases. The colours are as rich as intended, the detail is excellent and not once does the editing style cause issues for the transfer. Ably matching the qualities here are those found in the soundtrack. Second Run generally do a very good job in cleaning up their soundtracks (Rat-Trap, in particular, was a revelation, especially as an Indian production over twenty-five years old) and those standards are maintained here. No issues to speak of whatsoever.
In keeping with the all-round quality we also find two extremely strong additions which are amongst my favourites of the year so far. Strickland’s appreciation serves as an excellent introduction. He makes for an engaging host and ably communicates his enthusiasm for Szindbád whilst throwing in various titbits of information here and there, not to mention his thoughts on Hungarian food. There are no spoilers so those wishing to have some kind of footing before embarking on the main feature would do well to give it a look first; those who prefer to go in cold would be advised to definitely check it out once the film is over. Of course, you’ll also want to learn as much about Huszárik and more once Szindbád has finished and this is where Michael Brooke’s epic booklet essay comes in. Here we find as much background information (into the film, Huszárik, Hungarian cinema and much more besides) as you could hope for, and all in a highly readable fashion. It’s also of great value given how little has been written on Szindbád and Huszárik in English, although if you are tempted to read more than there’s also a brief further reading (and further viewing of Huszárik shorts which can be found online) section at the very end.