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Fictionalizing your own experience is a risky endeavor. Rely too heavily on fact and you’re likely to end up with a shapeless, forbiddingly private creation. But if you embroider the truth with excessive invention, the result falls into the limbo separating life and art. An American Rhapsody, Hungarian-born writer-director Eva Gardos’ drama based on her own childhood, inhabits this no woman’s land. A sincere, unquestionably personal effort, its mixture of memory and artifice never quite gels.
Gracelessly divided into three movements, An American Rhapsody opens with a suspenseful account of an upper-class family’s escape from Communist Hungary in the early ’50s. Placing their fate in the hands of unreliable profiteers, publisher Peter (Tony Goldwyn), his wife, Margit (Nastassja Kinski), and their two daughters attempt a nighttime crossing of the Hungarian border to fulfill their dream of starting a new life in the United States. In a moment of peril, their infant girl, Suzanne, is left behind. Peter’s closest friend places the baby with Teri (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) and Jeno (Balázs Galkó), a childless farm couple in a remote village, who raise her as their own daughter.
Peter, Margit, and their elder child, Maria (Mae Whitman), settle in Los Angeles. The parents find menial jobs: He works as a mechanic and sells vacuum cleaners, and she waits tables in a diner. They never abandon hope of being reunited with Suzanne, and six years later, with the help of Margit’s aristocratic mother, Helen (Agi Bánfalvy), the girl (Kelly Endrész Bánlaki) is spirited away from the loving couple that she assumes are her parents and transported to the alien culture of mid-’50s California and the home of three strangers.
At this point, Gardos leaps a decade ahead, to 1965. Fifteen-year-old Suzanne (Scarlett Johansson) has become a rebellious teenager, haunted by memories of her homeland and her foster parents. To discover who she is and where she belongs, Suzanne feels compelled to return to Hungarya journey that resolves her troublesome feelings of displacement. Having confronted her past and experienced the hardscrabble life of ’60s Hungary, she reaches a decision about her future in a perfunctory, tacked-on denouement.
Although few viewers are likely to wax rhapsodic over Gardos’ uneven, rather cumbersome film, it’s intermittently affecting and largely well-acted. The early escape sequences, subtitled and shot in glossy black and white, are gripping but weirdly artificial, reminiscent of Casablanca, Berlin Express, and other ’40s Nazi-underground movies, rather than the realistic representation of ’50s Hungary under Communist rule for which Gardos presumably strives. Here, Gardos seems to have conflated her personal memories with the stylized Hollywood studio wartime dramas revived on television during her adolescence. Kinski’s and Goldwyn’s movie-star glamour is too idealized to suit the roles of the director’s parents, to whom she dedicates her film.
An American Rhapsody’s middle section is far more effective. Wide-eyed Bánlaki, a splendid young actress who seems totally oblivious to the camera’s presence, palpably communicates uprooted Suzanne’s bewildered fascination with and estrangement from her new environment. In the film’s best scene, she steals away from her family’s tract home and, clad in anomalous Eastern European garb, wanders through the neighborhood, absorbing its strange sights and sounds. Bánlaki brings an aura of melancholy to every glance and gesture, slowly warming to Margit’s maternal affection while stubbornly insisting on referring to her as “lady” rather than “Mother.”
But the movie stumbles when it jumps forward to Suzanne’s adolescence and Bánlaki is replaced by Johansson, whose smug, tentative performance makes us wonder how a sensitive little girl could have matured into such a lumpish young woman. Her pouty attempts to defy her motherby smoking, drinking, and sneaking off with boysrattle Kinski’s hitherto compassionate Margit, who turns shrill and hysterically overprotective. Johansson is equally off-putting in the scenes depicting Suzanne’s return to Hungary, where her Little-Miss-Know-It-All smirk sours the reunions with her foster parents and grandmother.
I’ve had a crush on Kinski, now 40, since her breakthrough ingénue roles in Tess and One From the Heart, and I’ve even enjoyed watching her in such recent stinkers as One Night Stand and Susan’s Plan. Her gaminlike beauty has ripened into something even more radiant, and her expressive skillsnever her strong pointhave matured as well. Her performance as Margit is resourceful and touchinguntil the last third of the movie, when Gardos forces her to behave like a batty prison warden. As Peter, Goldwyn cuts a striking figure but has little to do. (Either his role was downsized in the editing room or it was deemed secondary in a production dominated by women.) Czinkóczi and Galkó are generically rustic as Suzanne’s putative parents, but Bánfalvy is articulate and elegant as worldly Helen, who endures incarceration for her role in her granddaughter’s escape.
In An American Rhapsody’s press notes, Gardos, whose film-editing credits include Barfly, Mask, and Agnes Browne, melodramatically recalls the history of her movie, which began when she was encouraged, at a retreat held by photographer-filmmaker Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis Ford Coppola), to recount her early years. “All of us try to forget the painful moments of our childhood,” Gardos observes. “But in order to make this film I had to remember and I also had to recreate. There were times when I thought I just couldn’t do it. I had to push myself to the very edge and prove to myself just how brave and tough I could be.”
But Gardos fails to convey her ostensible anguish, courage, and tenacity in her film. In the process of translating her personal experience into a movie for a mass audience, she’s relied too heavily on formulaic dramaturgy and deliverance-from-an-evil-empire clichés. Despite some heartfelt moments and moving performances, An American Rhapsody is oddly antique, like a Cold War artifact unearthed intact from a time capsule a half-century after its entombment. CP