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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002

When the isms go marching


Rating: * * * *
Director: Istvan Szabo
Running time: 181 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

If the 181-minute "Sunshine" was another three hours long it would still cause a craving for more, and a strong urge to recover all the footage that was chopped in the editing room. The material is perhaps more suited to a TV series than a motion picture: The elements that get you hooked, addicted and obsessive over what happens next are all there, ready to be stretched over a full season for hardcore viewing.

News photo
James Frain, Jennifer Ehle and Ralph Fiennes in "Sunshine"

Don't let the innocent little title fool you. "Sunshine" is grandiose, ambitious, crammed with history, incident and emotion. Taking in the story is like opening the floodgates of the senses -- every single nerve, it seems, is stirred and mobilized to absorb the events on the screen. Spanning three generations of a Hungarian family from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, "Sunshine" is a journey through their worst as well as most glorious times.

Directed by Istvan Szabo, the story is "semi-autobiographical" and has a personal ring to it no matter how heavy the political mantle it carries -- and believe me, the weight is often crushing. Szabo takes us through the Austro-Hungarian Empire to pre-World War I political unrest, to the front-lines in Sarajevo and then to the collapse of the monarchy, the rapid rise of anti-Semitism, Nazi rule, the end of World War II and eventually Stalinism. All of the isms of 20th-century politics goose-stepped through the streets of Budapest in heavy army boots, the family suffering through each of its marches.

Szabo made some extremely shrewd casting decisions. Rather than overwhelm the viewer with an abundance of characters and history, he installed Ralph Fiennes as the centerpiece and had him play three different men in three generations, descended from a Jewish tavern-keeper called Sonnenschein (which in German means "sunshine.")

To call Fiennes' performance a tour de force is an understatement. Fiennes brings separate, studied nuances to each of the characters but also makes sure there's an underlying familial streak that defines them all. Each of the men are compelling in their individuality but their inner fears and demons are surprisingly similar, surfacing in flashes from a well-bred Jewish exterior.

The story is divided into three segments, and starts first of all with Ignatz Sonnenschein (Fiennes), the first in his family to become a professional lawyer. Ignatz was brought up with his brother Gustav (James Frain) and orphaned cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle), whom he was taught to love as a sister but in fact, grew to love as a woman. They marry against the family's wishes and have two sons.

Ignatz eventually becomes a court judge and is encouraged to run for office. Gustav trains as a doctor but his social ideas throw him in with the communists. Valerie is an exuberant and clear-thinking individual, who has the gift of seeing the beauty in life and the will to find happiness no matter what.

Though the shortest segment in the story, this first on sets the tone for the rest of the film -- Ignatz, Gutsav and Valerie are stronger and happier than they or their children will ever be in the years to come.

In fact, the seeds of disaster had already been sown. Ignatz decides their Jewish surname will hinder his political career and changes it to "the more Hungarian" Sors. His blind patriotism and wish to assimilate into Hungarian elite society culminates in neurosis and an early death. His ideals rub off on his son Adam (Fiennes), a champion fencer who grows up with a disdain for all things foreign. Adam converts to Catholicism to join the officer's fencing club, then wins the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics. But he cannot discard his Jewish roots so easily. He and his son Ivan are eventually deported to a concentration camp and his wife Hannah (Molly Parker) is killed.

Adam himself dies in a protracted, horrific scene in which he is ordered to strip (in mid-winter) before his son and thousands of fellow countrymen, tortured, then tied to a tree and sprayed with water until he is encased in a ghastly ice sculpture.

When the Soviets liberate Hungary from Nazism, Ivan (Fiennes) reunites with his grandmother Valerie (Rosemary Harris), the staunch matriarch whose zest for life has allowed her to overcome the deaths of her nearest and dearest. Eager for revenge, Ivan joins the police to hunt down the fascists. But as he learns later, what had appeared to offer justice and retribution quickly turns into corruption and violence. Once more, a Sors man finds himself betrayed by politics.

In the end, Ivan realizes that politics is never the answer. Happiness can only be found in the personal. And the sole family member who succeeded in this quest was Valerie. The men of the family brought disaster by allowing their lives to be dictated by politics while the women struggled against fate with a passionate lust for joy, however brief or small. This isn't just a history of the Sors, but of 20th century mankind as well.

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