*** (A must-see)

Directed by Gyula Gazdag

Written by Gazdag and Miklos Gyorffy

With David Vermes and Eszter Csakanyi.

When Soviet armies drove the Nazis from the ruins of Budapest in 1945, the victors demanded that the Hungarians erect a statue to celebrate their liberation, such as it was. A suitable icon was located in the rubble of the studio of a starving sculptor: a huge stone carving of a woman striking a preposterously “heroic” pose–a dubious item originally ordered by the dictator Admiral Horthy de Nagybanya to commemorate a son killed fighting you-know-who on the Eastern front. The sculpture was adapted to serve the new regime, and today on a hill above the Danube stands the Liberation Monument (as it was officially named): ungainly, uncherished, and vastly ironic. Hungarians typically refer to it with a snort as the “fishmonger.” So says Gyula Gazdag, who was in Chicago last week for the film festival, and in whose A Hungarian Fairy Tale (1986) a slightly more plausible liberation symbol–a massive mythical bird–plays a sardonic and climactic role.

The tale of the scorned Soviet statue–apocryphal or not–bespeaks a wry defiance and a fierce resistance to official cant, which characterized public Hungarian attitudes long before the remarkable recent rush toward new civil liberties and political rights. Few filmmakers there, or anywhere, surpass Gazdag at the fine art of insinuating acerbic observations into seemingly “innocent” scenes of Party officials performing endless mischief through (or under cover of) strict bureaucratic procedures. In Gazdag’s work the key image evoked is not so much of evil Party stooges (though such folks do swagger in and out of the frame) as of clumsy apparatchiks tumbling over one another like Keystone Kops.

An unabashed member of Eastern Europe’s “generation of ’68,” harking to the giddy and cruelly crushed Czechoslovakian democratic experiment under Dubcek, Gazdag first gained attention for two breathtakingly candid documentaries. Selection (1970) was a howlingly funny expose of a committee of aspiring Stalinists cautiously auditioning rock bands for a Party-sponsored soiree as if worried that a single twitch from a Mick Jagger’s hips could smash the state apparatus. It’s a mercilessly mirthful (and critical) film. The Resolution (1972) records the brutally cynical tactics used by a regional committee to sidestep formal democratic rights of the recalcitrant members of a rural cooperative. Neither documentary needed narration. But some of the brighter lights among Party officials saw through Gazdag’s deviously deadpan cinematic style and banned both works.

Gazdag’s first feature, Whistling Cobblestones (1971), lampooned bungling adult leaders in a boys’ summer camp, and, by extension, Party rule. Yup, banned. Gazdag then cunningly concocted, as in A Hungarian Fairy Tale, an arch blend of surrealism and operatic elements in Singing on the Treadmill (1974), wherein a chorus of Party surrogates croons the paternalist promise “all things we will bring to you”–if only you shut up and wait. Not widely distributed.

After an enforced absence Gazdag returned to filmmaking in the relatively relaxed political climate of the early 1980s with Lost Illusions (1982), which ably refashioned Balzac’s 19th-century novel to skewer a sorry band of upwardly mobile East European professionals “networking” busily on the eve of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia–a far tougher probe into that stratum than the more marketable The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Gazdag’s turf is populated with bureaucratic fools, abusive petty officials, and protagonists who (usually) try to fight their way free from the web of deceptions that make up “the official story.” Allegory also comes potently into play. So it is with A Hungarian Fairy Tale, an uneasy and highly effective mixture of realistic narrative and surrealistic odyssey. Here bureaucracy bites the dust and an orphaned boy ultimately takes wing to a never-never land of family bliss, toward the paradise that the people’s republic, except in old Party boasts, never even remotely became. Shot superbly in luminous black and white, the film is a captivating accomplishment even if the subtle allegorical (antiauthoritarian) dimension is ignored. Gazdag’s droll and stinging style is muted, the better to highlight an ambitious and nearly archetypal rendering of the quest for a sense of identity and for an unmanipulated milieu to live in. It’s hardly necessary (though it must help) to be East European to appreciate that utopian thematic thrust.

The film opens with an erotic night at the opera–The Magic Flute–and Mozart’s music erupts intermittently afterward in the rigidly humdrum world onscreen. After a rhapsodic tryst with a handsome stranger, a free-spirited beauty (Eszter Csakanyi) gives birth to a boy. Amid modest comforts she raises him alone, contentedly. But Hungarian Family Law article 41, paragraph one, demands that the boy have a father so all the spaces on bureaucratic forms can be neatly filled. A kindly if insistent middle-aged bureaucrat persuades the mother to invent a father, randomly chosen address and all. But the mother later is killed, struck by roof materials a pigeon dislodges, and the orphaned nine-year-old, rummaging, finds the documents mentioning the phantom daddy. So he sallies forth alone on a futile quest. The made-up address is, incidentally, “142 Freedom Street,” which is a clue that Gazdag is hunting bigger game than the biological or bureaucratic father.

The lad encounters a “normal” nuclear but miserable family, a lonely and warmhearted nurse who aids him, a school for prepubescent sharpshooting warriors (where he pilfers a rifle), the same remorseful bureaucrat who helped manufacture his false paternity certificate, and a mysterious mischievous old woman who interferes with everybody’s business (and is a dead ringer for Tony Curtis in drag, 30 years after Some Like It Hot). These encounters cumulatively work on the boy, peeling away layers of misunderstanding and mystification about families, friendships, and the less than satisfactory social system. But the boy stubbornly, maybe bravely, continues searching for if not the exact father at least an authentically warm and truthful home. Too much for a boy, or a nation, to hope for? In the final frames the director supplies in the form of a colossal animated stone eagle an exquisitely affecting and ambiguous answer. The eagle, boarded by the boy, the morose bureaucrat, and the nurse, flutters to “142 Freedom Street” in a bleakly magical ending reminiscent of the psychotic finale in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Yet in a penultimate scene Gazdag resorts explicitly to a mixture of fantasy sequences that knit together the boy’s adamant search with images of the 1956 uprising representing the wider human demand for a just society. Gazdag clearly is no prophet of despair (especially not today), instead it is the persistent human call for truthfulness–and, whenever possible, greater freedom–that is sublimely celebrated here.

In A Hungarian Fairy Tale Gazdag creates a memorable world that whimsically deals out names and death and affection and then challenges it at every level, literal and symbolic. A strange and rewarding brew for the adventurous.