Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek) Review
1947. Juli (Zsusza Czinkóczi) returns home from exile in Russia to a war-devastated Budapest. Her parents are dead. She moves in with Magda (Anna Polony, dubbed by Teri Fõlde), a high-ranking member of the elite who had sponsored Juli's return to Hungary. Magda offers Juli a relatively privileged life, at a time of Stalinist purges in the country, but Juli instinctively resists. She is determined to find out the truth about how her parents met their end.
You only need to see the word diary (Napló) in the opening credits to be able to tell that this is a very personal work for its writer-director, and that commitment to the material is obvious even without that title. This is the first of a trilogy of Diary films (the gyermekeimnek is in smaller type, like a subtitle) and Second Run will release them all in time. Some knowledge of Hungarian history may be useful, but the storyline is clear enough. Mészáros mixes archive footage with newly-shot black and white material. Given the importance of family in this film, it's significant that the DP was the director's son Nyika Jancsó, credited as Miklós Jancsó Jr.
Diary for My Children follows a familiar coming-of-age arc, but one authoritatively expressed: you can sense this is a life that was lived rather than conjured up out of nothing. We also see the beginnings of Juli's interest in film, as she “borrows” Magda's movie pass on a regular basis and spends days in the cinema. But she is also troubled by images, perhaps idealised through survivor guilt, of her mother. At first it's only with her boyfriend that she is able to talk about this. However later she becomes attached to Janos (Polish actor Jan Nowicki, a Mészáros regular, dubbed by Sándor Oszter), an engineer and Communist resistance member who resembles Juli's sculptor father (who is also played, in flashbacks, by Nowicki). Meanwhile, Juli's attempts to find out the truth about her parents's death are blocked at every turn by the authorities.
The film was completed in 1982 (its copyright date) but held up by the Hungarian authorities before it was eventually approved with some cuts. Diary premiered in competition at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize. (The Golden Palm winner that year was Paris, Texas.) Diary for My Loves followed in 1987 and Diary for My Mother and Father in 1990.
Diary for My Children is released by Second Run on a dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions. Originally rated PG, Diary now carries a 12 certificate due to a scene of domestic violence in a film within the film.
The DVD transfer is anamorphic, in a ratio of 1.78:1. For some of the film there's a thin black bar to screen left. I saw Diary on the big screen in 1985, at a cinema owned by the film's theatrical distributor, and it was shown in Academy Ratio (1.37:1). That was a feasible ratio for an Eastern European film of the time. The present widescreen DVD – which would translate to a cinematic ratio of 1.75:1 – does seem a little cropped in places, and I wonder if the intended ratio is in fact 1.66:1, which is the ratio I saw Diary for My Loves in. That said, the director's involvement with the DVD leads me to suspect that it meets with her approval, so I will note the above and move on. As for the transfer itself, it's a very good one, with strong blacks and plenty of greyscale. Contrast, very important for a monochrome film, seems right. The archive footage is inevitably softer, grainier and with signs of print damage, but that's what you would expect.
The soundtrack is the original mono (not “stereo” as the box says), and is clear and well balanced. English subtitles are available if your Magyar is not up to the task. The two Polish actors in this Hungarian film, Anna Polony and Jan Nowicki, are revoiced but this is done so well you hardly notice.
The only extra on the disc is an interview with the director (24:50). Speaking in Hungarian (subtitles are again available), Mészáros is a fluent speaker, talking about her early years and the beginning of her film career, becoming the first woman to make a feature in Hungary with The Girl (Eltávozott nap) in 1968. She also discusses how few female directors there were at the time – more in continental Europe than there were in the UK and USA, certainly.
Second Run have provided a booklet which includes an essay by Catherine Portuges, which is particularly useful for those not well versed in this particular period of Eastern European history. The sixteen-page booklet also includes film and DVD credits.