Much of the merit of Zoltán Huszárik’s Szindbád (1971) is likely to be lost on those uninitiated in Hungarian cinema and literature. The film has little narrative to speak of: what story there is centres on the title character Szindbád, who sails, like his namesake, but in a metaphorical sense. Szindbád has spent his life navigating seas of women, without ever quite fathoming the depths of their emotions. Set mainly at the end of this Lothario’s life, at the turn of the 20th century, the film follows him as he visits ageing former lovers and recalls his previous conquests in flashbacks, some lasting a few seconds, others several minutes.
The most accessible charm of this film is its aesthetic. Szindbád begins with a series of intriguing extreme close-ups, mainly of objects from the natural world: smouldering wood, a lock of blonde hair, rain dripping from roof tiles, lilies unfurling, all to a haunting soundtrack of dissonant piano notes and a woman’s playful laughter. The entire film is punctuated by similarly surreal shots of everyday objects, filmed so close that they become strange. The film’s extreme long shots are equally appealing, and capture the lyrical quality of the Central European countryside in every season: mist-wrapped mountains; onion-domed churches watching over lush green meadows; leaf-littered graveyards; snowy tree-lined avenues. Szindbád also benefits from saturated colour photography that emphasises the beauty and variety of the landscape, objects and costumes.
In spite of its surface beauty, there is something rotten at the heart of Szindbád. Scenes from Szindbád‘s later years are permeated with a tiresome malaise that cannot be attributed to fin-de-sií¨cle decadence. Szindbád’s unease comes from the regret of never having formed a meaningful bond with any of the scores of women he encountered: at the end of his life, he is left only with memories of fleeting pleasures. For the women, it is the sickliness of unsatisfied desire, which knows no end: they continue to languish after the unworthy womaniser.
Thankfully, Second Run’s new DVD release comes with clear and concise liner notes in which Michael Brooke gives the necessary background information to Szindbád. He explains that it was a daring adaptation of the work of Hungarian modernist Gyula Krúdy, whose Szindbád stories were driven by observations rather than events. The film is also remarkable in terms of its reception: despite being set in a bourgeois turn-of-the century milieu, it was approved by the censors, and despite its artistic ambition, it became a popular success. Even now, it ranks high among the favourites of Hungarian film critics and public alike.
The DVD includes just one special feature, but one so good it is almost all that is necessary. Peter Strickland, director of the Hungary-set Katalin Varga (2009), engages in an ‘appreciation’ of Szindbád: a discussion of the film’s merits that is thoughtful and detailed, yet disarmingly personal and relaxed. If you finish watching Szindbád and aren’t convinced that it was worth your while, let Strickland try to change your mind.