Thursday, August 28, 2014

Children of War

The Notebook (2013) - Szász
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Loss of innocence and humanity during war times through the eyes of children has its shares of cinematic treatment over the years. Based on a prize winning novel of the same name, Hungarian director János Szász adds The Notebook/Le Grand Cahier to that list. It's a WWII drama that has a darker, much more sinister tone in reflecting human survival than, say, Steven Spielberg's JG Ballard adaptation, Empire of the Sun (1987), starring baby Christian Bale.

The film tells a story of young twin brothers (played by András and Lázló Gyémánt), singularly known only as bastards by their cruel grandmother who reluctantly takes the boys into her care in her rural farm. It was their parents' decision. They thought the kids would have a better chance in surviving the war there than staying in their opulent home in Budapest. They quickly learn that life at the farm is no picnic. They have to earn their meals and lodging. They also give up the hope that their loving mother will come back to fetch them soon. Completely cut off from the world and lacking any kind of adult supervision, the boys retreat into their own world full of strict rules and structures. Their only moral guide is the bible (the only book they have) and a blank notebook which they fill up with everything they experience.

After a Nazi camp moves in next to grandma's property, and witnessing people's suffering and cruelty, morality of the twins becomes warped, as they concentrate on 'punishing the wicked'. Armed with the grenades they found on a dead soldier in the woods, the boys train to be physically strong and cruel - they whip and punch each other until they bleed, kill bugs and small animals. In their minds, these are the things they have to do to survive.

They have occasional contacts with other people: a harelipped girl who teaches them how to steal, a Jew-hating blonde maiden whom they have their first sexual encounter with, a dirty priest whom they blackmail and a Nazi officer (played by always dependable Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) who take interests on the twins who seem to finish each other's sentences and don't seem to be afraid of anything.

The most chilling moment in Spielberg's tearjerker Empire of the Sun comes after Jim gets released from the internment camp, telling the grownups that he can no longer remember his parents' faces. In The Notebook, the twins' parents come back (albeit separately), only to get the coldest, most unthinkable receptions from the boys who not only have lost their youth, but their humanity as well.

The young Gyémánt brothers, playing the leads are revelations here. Their disarming sweet smile can just as quickly be replaced by bone-chilling, evil stares. Their portrayals of young boys' scary descent into deeply-scarred-sociopaths-in-the-making is never melancholic but endlessly fascinating. The Notebook plays out like a grimmest of the Grimms' fairytale.

Imbued with elements from JG Ballard, Spirits of the Beehive, Lord of the Flies and even Dead Ringers, the film tells how the ultimate survival instincts kick into gear when faced with horrific, soul crushing nature of war.

Winner of Karlovy Vary Film Fest 2013, The Notebook opens in NY and LA on Aug 29th. National roll out will follow.