*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Istvan Darday and Gyorgyi Szalai

With Mihaly Des, Lilla Paszti, and Janos Agoston.

The Documentator opens with a long sequence of various military parades. We see troops and tanks marching before the main title, before any characters are introduced. Just after the main title we see a video game whose object appears to be the killing of a camel; the camera then pulls back to reveal a young man playing it, who we later learn is an assistant to Raffael, the main character. This transition between the parades and the video game implies a link between personal acts of violence, even in play, and the consequences of militarism. By beginning with military footage, the makers of this extraordinary three-and-one-half-hour Hungarian film also place the personal and dramatic action of their work in a larger social context.

Raffael is an entrepreneur in a Hungary that is making the transition from communism to capitalism. He, with the help of his motorcyclist assistant, appears to be importing and distributing videocassettes illegally. His business generates large profits, which allows him to support a gorgeous blond girlfriend and helps him pursue his hobby: building up and viewing a large archive of tapes of news events. Early in the film he begins watching some of these tapes, and suddenly the viewer is immersed in footage of Martin Luther King, Paris in 1968, the Cultural Revolution in China. We do not return to Raffael’s face–we are no longer seeing these images through his eyes. They go on for so long that they take on a life of their own. As momentous world events pile atop each other, sequence by sequence, this video footage takes on a peculiar feeling of weight, as if the collection of images were almost a solid mass. Certainly the viewer’s memory of this news footage and of the opening parades remains strong throughout the dramatic scenes that follow.

This is as it should be, for one of the film’s two great themes is the way in which contemporary life is dominated, even determined, by imagery. Raffael and his girlfriend ride together in his car, and she laments that he no longer loves her. They are seen through the windshield; their faces in the car’s interior are fairly dark, while the windshield reflects the brightly lit surrounding buildings. Or, behind a business transaction in Raffael’s store, a TV screen shows footage of the pope on one of his trips. Or an argument between Raffael and his girlfriend (she says, “I’m not your slave,” and he says, “How do you know?”–a dialogue that is repeated while they have sex) is followed by Raffael’s image on video talking about making money and being rich. In these and many other ways the filmmakers have created a universe in which imagery in all its forms–we also see still photographs and a reproduction of a Leonardo painting–seems to define life rather than, as most would expect, life defining imagery.

What makes The Documentator more than an essay or a tract is the skill with which Darday and Szalai combine their disparate images. The film does have its dramatic moments; the most surprising is when Raffael, finding his girlfriend with a young lover, locks them in a room and then focuses his video cameras on them through an opening. But such moments are rare, and they stand out because of the way in which they are surrounded by a profusion of other images. The relationship between the film’s different kinds of imagery is brilliantly ambiguous; rarely does any juxtaposition, with the exception of the opening one, approach direct metaphor. More often a number of possible connections may be present, but which one to draw is left up to the viewer. After the scene in which Raffael locks up the lovers, there is a long and gruesome video sequence showing the execution of a man who was convicted of murdering a woman. One might draw a variety of parallels to the previous scene, but this material is dominated by the hideous footage of the man’s face after electrocution, a grotesqueness that goes far beyond anything in the prior scene. Once again, images take on a life of their own.

The looseness of these connections makes possible a variety of disjunctions and contradictions that suggest the film’s other major theme, which might be called the cultural contradictions of late communism. Raffael’s illegal entrepreneurship is shown clashing with the ethos of Hungary in 1987. In the most obvious instance, he hides his profits in American $100 bills in a hollowed-out book of Marx’s writings. More generally, the film’s fragmentary and often unbalanced form–at times the video news footage seems to dominate, at other times the drama–can be seen as an expression of the contradictions of a society in transition. The filmmakers present the relations between their different types of imagery more as questions than answers. The viewer is invited to thread his way through the work, trying to sort out the contradictions and coming to his own sense of the relationships between the different forms of representation. Near the film’s end comes a death, which is true to the conventions of melodrama–but the death is presented without emphasis, and, like much of the film, cryptically.

The film ends with a short, apparently disconnected burst of images, which is to the filmmakers’ credit: if deaths near the ends of films are used to tie those works’ threads together in a neat knot, the end of The Documentator unties those threads. The very last image is of a black-and-white reproduction of Leonardo’s Saint John the Baptist, which has been seen twice before in the film. The contradictions inherent in the story are recapitulated formally in this imagery. The characters’ strivings all involve crossing barriers or exchanging things not meant to be exchanged: smuggling videos across borders, bartering love for money. It is thus perhaps appropriate to end the film with an image of a great color painting of the Renaissance reduced to a 20th-century black-and-white reproduction seen on video. The Documentator portrays a world in which the existing order is breaking down, but no new order has emerged to replace it. Instead we are adrift in a flood of imagery, in a realm of shifting relationships.