Set at the height of the Cold War, An American Rhapsody is the story of a Hungarian family who in 1950 flees from behind the Iron Curtain in a daring midnight escape. Peter (Tony Goldwyn) and Margit (Nastassja Kinski) are an elite Budapest couple who have evidently survived World War II and the Nazi occupation in pretty good shape. Under Stalin's thumb, though, the pillars of privilege are being crushed, and Peter decides to make a new life in America. An extortionist black marketeer agrees to escort Peter, Margit and their 5-year-old daughter Maria (Mae Whitman) past the snarling dogs and through the barbed wire into the freedom of Austria. But the escort refuses to shepherd anyone with a baby. As a result, Peter and Margit decide to leave their infant Suzanne with Margit's mother Helen (Agnes Banfalvy). Another mule is supposed to bring Suzanne to Vienna at a later date, but when Helen learns the baby will have to be drugged to assure her silence, the grandmother backs out of the plan.
Complications ensue. Helen is arrested and put in prison, presumably for the sin of being rich. Just before she's locked up, she places Suzanne in the care of foster parents Teri (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi) and Jeno (Balazs Galko), a rural couple who raise the child as if she's their own. Suzi (played as a child with astonishing, heartbreaking veracity by Kelly Endresz Banlaki) grows up a loved and loving child until at the age of 6 she is taken from her foster parents and returned to Peter and Margit, who are now living a middle-class life in suburban Los Angeles. This wrenching transition is hard on the little girl, who misses her "mama" and "papa" terribly. It is here that the picture achieves its greatest power, in the complicated scenes of reunion where the biological parents try to communicate their love to a child who regards them as strangers.
After young Suzanne's arrival in California, An American Rhapsody jump cuts nine years to 1965 to discover Suzanne (now played by the talented Scarlett Johansson, who has been abandoned by her inexperienced director to ping pong between pout and sneer), a rebellious teen in open war with frustrated parents.
Here the picture loses its way almost entirely. Suzanne smokes and smooches, sneaks out at night and takes wrinkle-faced nips from a friend's pint of hooch. In short, she acts not terribly unlike almost every American teen of the 1960s. But the alienation between mother and daughter is so great that Margit puts bars on Suzanne's bedroom window and a deadbolt on the outside of her bedroom door. Unremarkably, Suzanne reacts violently to being made a prisoner in her own home, and things go from bad to worse.
So does the movie. In an abrupt reversal, Peter and Margit decide to set their daughter free and indulge her desire to return to Hungary. In Budapest, Suzanne reunites with Teri and Jeno and discovers how much they still love her, how much her love for them has never dimmed and how much a communist country just ain't as cool as the swingin' USA. So it's back to L.A. again like an Andre Agassi return of service. Now that Suzanne has seen open-air markets and mansions divided into apartment housing for dozens, Margit seems like a crackerjack mom after all.
I can only conclude that Eva Gardos was simply too close to this story and its explosive emotional implications to tell it with the necessary clarity. The material is so undeniably affecting that the film almost works in spite of itself. I am naturally reminded of last year's Oscar-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers that tells the comparable story of Jewish children sent to foster homes in England on the eve of the Holocaust. Like Suzanne, some of the children who were reunited with their natural parents after the war felt themselves horribly divided, to a spiritually crippling extent fundamentally homeless.
But despite being "true," An American Rhapsody feels fatally contrived. Peter and Margit's decision to go off without their baby is never satisfactorily explored. One wonders if Gardos was afraid to imagine how her parents rationalized this arguably indefensible act. And the nature of Suzanne's relationship with her parents during the crucial years between ages six and fifteen has been left entirely and mysteriously blank. In sum, for all its harrowing detail, An American Rhapsody is never adequately convincing. Something isn't being faced, but we aren't sure what or why.