Second Run continues its celebration of Miklos Jancso with one of the Hungarian director’s most essential films
Trying to delve into narrative points beyond the absolute broadest of descriptions can be dangerous when discussing Miklós Jancsó’s 1971 film Red Psalm (Még kér a nép). Anyone familiar with the director’s work during this period, including the three earlier films already released by Second Run DVD, should understand that a Jancsó picture can be a terrifically challenging watch. From an aesthetic standpoint, Red Psalm improves the experience over his black and white features. The use of color here is natural yet inspired. The outdoor setting lends itself to capturing the colorful beauty contained in nature and Jancsó adds ample use of red and white to serve as striking contrasts. He also cast his film with attractive faces, and three of the fairer ones spend much of the movie liberated from their tops.
Other expected Jancsó signatures return in Red Psalm, notably his fierce political concerns and the use of a roaming camera that brings a heightened immediacy to the viewing. The essay included with this release, an essential read by the reliably astute Peter Hames, uses ballet as a point of comparison and it would seem to be an apt reference. The celebrated way in which the camera weaves and follows its targets is remarkable not merely as a technical achievement but also as a method to establish a specific kind of mood. It makes us feel closer and more attached to the situations seen in the film. The often violent acts that unfold between the peasants with socialist ideologies and the military men who represent the Hungarian government in the late nineteenth century tend to be harsh and quick and, like the film, sometimes confusing. The elegant sharpness of the camera takes the viewer far more than halfway along this path. It moves to unheard music with a pronounced beauty and a purpose.
The small number of shots in the film (21, according to the booklet) is indicative of both how organized Jancsó’s filmmaking was and also how loose and free the visual translation is for the viewer. This fluid, graceful style becomes a pinpoint realization of that overall emphasis on turning peasant uprisings into something balletic. The frequent musical performances by the peasants of traditional and simple songs containing barbed, determined lyrics are perhaps the master key in unlocking the director’s intentions. Jancsó is embracing a separate kind of defiance and presenting it to his audience. It’s a fairly classic propaganda move, and Red Psalm certainly stands as an agenda piece, but the repeated use of song as a means of rebellion has a stressed importance. It might feel a little naive or simplistic today, an instance of outdatedness along with some of the heavy Marxist ideals espoused. The actual use, though, and way music becomes a tool still remains deeply interesting.
What can be discerned from the narrative makes an impact, one maybe strengthened on multiple viewings. To be sure, Red Psalm is far enough structurally from the typical movie so as to almost surely repel the majority of its potential audience. No matter and no problem. The simple solution is to either be more adventurous or avoid making this your initial descent into the work of Miklós Jancsó. Of the other three released by Second Run, The Round-Up makes the strongest impact, My Way Home is the most accessible and The Red and the White carries the staunchest ambition. On a plane of equality, Red Psalm easily joins them without qualification, for its daring, its visual accomplishment and its comparative singularity. The focus in Red Psalm really never wavers. From the initially unassuming opening all the way to the final shot, the picture is always unsettled and entirely consistent.
If such a collection of praise sounds a tad vague, and hopefully it only slightly does, then please remember that a discussion of Red Psalm easily becomes one of its director, and few internationally renowned filmmakers built up their reputations with such acutely political yet highly specialized and difficult to penetrate works as Jancsó. His films are, frankly, difficult at times to watch, understand, and, particularly, write intelligently about with any sort of fresh perspective. In some ways, they are limited by their time and place. The message contained, while universal to a point, can be specific enough to give those outside of Hungary fits while trying to reconcile what’s happening on the screen. There are definite issues of how much one can relate to what’s occurring. And yet, the skill, the flair and the dedication comes through in exhilarating fashion. It’s the whole cinematic immersion, of an art form being used a certain way that would be unavailable elsewhere, that makes Red Psalm and other Jancsó films so thrilling to experience.
Red Psalm comes to region-free DVD on this UK and PAL disc released by Second Run. It’s dual-layered. The edition is yet another feather in the cap of what is perhaps the English language leader in providing interesting and affordable releases which one can rather safely buy based on curative trust alone.
The image is in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, approved by the director and enhanced for widescreen televisions. It’s also been progressively transferred to avoid any potential and unnecessary combing or ghosting. The results are pretty much excellent. Colors look rich and sufficiently vibrant. Some marks of damage, mostly just stray speckles and a few reel change markers, do remain but without causing any real distraction. Grain appears most heavily in the last reel or so of the movie, when scenes become darker. Detail is good, or at least good enough considering how compromised the materials used for such films tend to be. There is, almost surely, a host of economic reasons why Second Run is yet to enter the Blu-ray market. I’ll take one of their strong standard definition releases of an otherwise hard-to-find yet worthwhile title over a technically perfect turd of a picture any day of the week.
Audio is impressively clean, without any hint of hiss. The dialogue was dubbed and it’s in Hungarian, a mono track, so the generally okay condition of the sound, including the songs, should be more than sufficient. That it comes through in such a clear manner is another plus. English subtitles, advertised as new and improved, are optional. They are white in color.
On the disc is “Hegyalja” (54:15), the third episode of Jancsó’s documentary series Message of Stones. The previous pair of episodes can be found on Second Run’s The Red and the White and My Way Home releases. It finds Jancsó and his cameraman visiting the region of the episode’s title, with an emphasis placed on Jewish customs and history in the area. Footage of a burial ground, where we meet a Jewish man who sounds like he’s from the U.S. and who is there making his annual visit to his father’s grave, provides some particularly interesting moments.
Best of all is the booklet with Peter Hames’ illuminating essay and a helpful plot summary of Red Psalm. It goes for 20 pages total and also features some nice stills, with a recent picture of a pipe-smoking Jancsó adorning the back cover.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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