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Chilly Childhood 

Children are forced to administer vicious canings to other children in Abandoned, a harrowing, autobiographical coming-of-age tale from Hungarian writer-director Arpad Sopsits. Winner of the grand prize at last year's Montreal Film Festival (and Hungary's Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film), Abandoned is a nightmare about Soviet-era bureaucracy at its most inhumane. Set behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War, this drama tells the story of 9-year-old Aron Soproni (hauntingly played by Tamas Meszaros), a boy deposited by an uncaring father in a prison-like orphanage.

The seminal details are more sketchy than we'd like. Aron's mother is blind and is separated from his father, but we don't know why. Perhaps she's in an institution for the handicapped, but if so, that's not clear. Aside from his muttering that he wants to remarry, we also don't know why Aron's father determines to foist his son off on the state, or why orphanage officials agree to take him. We can tell pretty quickly, though, that Aron has landed in hell.

Aron is small and shy, and he's immediately identified as prey for torment by the other boys. In a passage reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the others pounce on Aron when he's sleeping one night and beat him with slings fashioned from soap and socks. However, in a development that perhaps arrives too quickly, Aron wins the friendship of the other boys. Thereafter, his nemesis will be the orphanage's sadistic director Mr. Csapo (Pal Macsai), who abuses his wards for the pure evil delight of watching them suffer. He smacks them with rulers for minor infractions, canes their backs into bleeding welts for instances of misbehavior. In one scene Csapo forces Aron to drag a heavy crate of coal across a rocky, snow-covered landscape until the child's hands bleed from the cold and the rough work.

When school officials force the boys to beat each other, they accede to this mean duty because they know they will inflict less damage than would an adult. Csapo is also presumably a pedophile. Whether we are to understand that he sexually molests them is not clear. But under the pretext of issuing new underwear, he forces them to come into his room alone and strip naked in front of him.

Aspects of Abandoned traverse well-explored territory. The boys find a way to spy on the school's buxom nurse, Miss Marika (Dora Letay) while she's in the shower. And they later educate each other about masturbation. These scenes don't feel rehashed, however. Marika is a figure of warmth and compassion, and though the film doesn't explore the complicated emotions in great depth, it makes clear that seeing the nurse naked is akin to seeing their mother naked, something as likely to provoke shame as to result in arousal.

Though this film is forthrightly concerned with a child's brutal experience in institutional care, it offers a conscious, if indirect commentary about Eastern European life under Soviet domination. Paranoia is rampant. Though he is someone who ought to be in jail rather than in a position supervising children, Csapo seems an individual almost free of restraint. The picture doesn't say so, but we gather he has powerful political connections. The other employees at the orphanage tremble before him as much as the children do. The math teacher, Nyitrai (Laszlo Galffi), has been a political prisoner and fears that any instance of standing up to Csapo will get him sent back to the penitentiary. Nyitrai is a person of native sensitivity and befriends Aron, but the teacher's fear is so great he becomes suspicious when Aron asks the most conventional questions about Nyitrai's family and background. Another teacher becomes obsessed with Mate (Attila Zsilak), a religious child who insists on praying before bed every night. This teacher is terrified he will be blamed by state authorities for failing to stamp out a religious practice.

Abandoned is narratively vague at sundry points, and this diminishes the picture's overall strength. What, for instance, are we to make of Aron's relationship with Attila Heltai (Szabolcs Csizmadia)? The two boys become friends, take to crawling into one another's bunks once their mates have gone to sleep, and finally even kiss each other. Are we to see this as manifestation of homosexual desire? Or are these two, lonely brutalized children simply sharing affection where none other is available? I would be satisfied to understand it as either or even both. But the picture doesn't shape the scenes so we can know.

But whatever its frustrations, this is a movie of memorable power. The boys' attempt to escape from the orphanage and the aftermath of their predictable failure works quite well as a metaphor for the Hungarian rebellion of 1956 and its savage crushing by the Soviet army. And the film's last scene registers the horrific physical toll Aron pays for his care by the state. It's an image I won't forget for a long time.

click to enlarge Orphanage director Mr. Csapo (Pal Macsai) torments his students in Abandoned, which opens Friday for one week at Zeitgeist.
  • Orphanage director Mr. Csapo (Pal Macsai) torments his students in Abandoned, which opens Friday for one week at Zeitgeist.
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