Wednesday, November 01, 2017

HFFLA ’17: Strangled

Soviet tanks put down the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Then in 1968, Hungary contributed troops to the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. In between, a serial killer terrorized the Hungarian town of Martfü, but the police badly complicated their investigation by forcing an innocent man to confess to the first murder. That it is the Communist experience in a nutshell. The real-life fear, paranoia and bureaucratic backstabbing that marked the inter-invasion era are chronicled in Árpád Sopsits’ historically based thriller, Strangled (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hungarian Film Festival Los Angeles.

Akos Reti was the last person to see his ex-girl-friend alive after she dumped him and he lacked an alibi for the time of death, so it was relatively easy torturing him into a confession. It was less than a year after the failed Revolution, so the police and prosecutors were under enormous press to convict somebody quickly. Nevertheless, there were facts about the case that did not sit well with Inspector Bota.

A few years later, several bodies of similar looking young women turn up, murdered in a roughly comparable manner, while the suicidal Reti languishes in prison. Zoltan Szirmai, the young, trouble-making provincial prosecutor quickly suspects the Reti murder was actually the work of their mystery serial killer and Bota is reluctantly inclined to agree, but nobody else wants to hear it. Thanks to incompetence and dishonesty, the investigation drags on for years. There are even two victims who survived the attacks, but they did not see their attacker. Nevertheless, Szirmai keeps pushing his theory of Reti’s innocence, basically bucking for a transfer to Siberia.

The true story of the Martfü Murderer is absolutely fascinating, bringing to mind the notorious Rostov Ripper (a.k.a. Citizen X) case, in which Communist ideology also served as an accomplice to a vicious serial killer. It is hard to say which is more chillingly depicted here, the killer’s slasher-style crimes, or the Orwellian horrors of the Party’s police and judicial system.

Zsolt Anger and Zsofia Szamosi are both terrific as the hard-drinking Bota and Reti’s outraged and ostracized sister Rita, respectively. Considering their difficult, often antagonistic shared history by their characters, the fact that we can largely accept their halting mutual attraction is a testament to their profoundly humanized portrayals and potent chemistry. Gabor Jaszberenyi is also unsettling convincing portraying the slow, agonizing death of Akos’s soul. Conversely, Karoly Hajduk is uncomfortable and clammy as the real killer (don’t even pretend that’s a spoiler), but he never comes remotely near Hannibal Lecter-Norman Bates levels of creepiness.

Although the film is not a horror movie per se, cinematographer Gabor Szabo (presumably no relation to the late, great pop-jazz guitarist) gives it an evil, nocturnal look. The film is particularly chilling because it is all mostly true in fact and entirely true in spirit. Very highly recommended, Strangled (catch the double meaning of that title) screens this Saturday night (11/4) at the Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts, as part of the 2017 Hungarian Film Festival Los Angeles.