Dear Emma, Sweet Böbe

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Szabó's film - co-written with Andrea Vészits - is concerned with the way in which, after a major switch in a political system, there is a period in which it takes people time to find their voices."

Dear Emma, Sweet Böbe may sound like the start of a letter but the last two words of the original Hungarian title of István Szabó's film vázlatok, aktok - Sketches, Nudes - are just as crucial, even if they are usually chopped off in translation.

Sketches and nudes (and sketches of nudes) are present in a film which is episodic, sketching moments in the lives of the two women of the title and exploring their naked hopes and fears.

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Both are country mice who have headed to Budapest some years before to find work as Russian teachers. Emma is the more mousy of the two, with actress Johanna ter Steege giving her a naive intensity and sense of fear that lingers on her features long after her recurrent nightmare of tumbling, naked down a vast bank of earth should have faded. Böbe is more blousy and flirtatious, played with wide-eyed brightness by Enikö Börcsök. We meet them shortly after the fall of Communism, grappling with the fact that Russian is no longer needed in schools and hastily trying to cram English in pronunciation classes which focus on such inane pecularities as "Would you like a cup of tea?". Essentially, the language, in its most general sense, of their country has irrevocably changed.

Although specifically following what happens to the pair, Szabó's film - co-written with Andrea Vészits - is concerned with the way in which, after a major switch in a political system, there is a period in which it takes people time to find their voices. In Emma's case this seems to be particularly difficult as she is so willing to be subservient to her headmaster lover. Even though it is abundantly clear he has no intention of leaving his wife, she can't find the strength to make her own bid for freedom. This is not for the want of encouragement from Böbe, who believes all their money problems - and, though unspoken, fears - will be solved if they can only marry a foreigner.

This is a country where change has come even to those who were happy with stasis and Szabó explores the collective bewilderment it has brought to a staff room where former Communist party members who once got the cream are now considered to be the lowest of the low. The money predicament is also illustrated, from the shared dorm at a dingy 'teachers' hotel' near the airport, which is all that Emma and Böbe can afford, to a disturbing scene in which naked women pose in front of a camera for a film job, stating their professions as: "nursery teacher", "nurse", "teacher" and so on. Szabó and Vészits also show that an end to Communism does not necessarily mean an end to inequality, with a policeman taking Emma's statement being almost as predatory as the sexual flasher she has just encountered.

Szabó never loses sight of the moments of humanity even as things take a tragic turn and he reminds us that an individual voice is still a crucial thing, even if all it can make initially is what amounts to a primal scream. Definitely a film that is ripe for a restored re-release.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2013
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Story of two teachers after the fall of Communism.

Festivals:

Black Nights 2013

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