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SUNSHINE

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Jennifer Ehle, Rachel Weiscz, Deborah Kara Unger, James Frain, William Hurt
Director:  Istvan Szabo
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  None
Length:  180 Minutes
Release Date:  May 8, 2001

"Dear God, let us go on singing always…”

Film ****

Sunshine is an extraordinary and thoroughly absorbing drama that paints upon the canvas of history with the warm, rich colors of human emotion.  By bringing us into the lives of three generations of a Jewish family living in Hungary and their experiences during the turmoil and upheavals of war-torn Europe, we can look past the sterile textbook pages of names, facts and dates, and instead, understand the humanity involved in all of its aspects:  courage and fear, love and intolerance, loyalty and betrayal.

Ralph Fiennes offers a tour-de-force performance as three members of the Sonnenschein family:  grandfather Ignatz, father Adam, and son Ivan.  Ivan narrates the history, but his portion of the story has some unexpected surprises as to his station in life.  Fiennes slips easily and comfortably into three different characters, similar in appearance but vastly different in ideals, abilities, and loyalties.  His eyes and face become the embodiment of deep moral torment over the course of the picture.

We are introduced to the family by learning that the great-grandfather, Emmanuel Sonnenschein, earned a fortune by selling a herbal tonic called “A Taste of Sunshine” from his own special formula.  His sons, Ignatz and Gustave (Frain) elect not to continue the family business, with their father’s philosophical approval.  Both seek education:  Ignatz in law and Gustave in medicine.  They attain their dreams of becoming a judge and doctor respectively, but even as the twentieth century arrives, politics are beginning to tear them apart.  Ignatz supports the monarchy, which was liberal enough to allow Jews like themselves to attain positions of status, wealth and respectability.  Gustave sees the suffering of the poor and the starving, and the government’s failure (or refusal) to help.  A third member of the family is Valerie (Ehle), a cousin of the boys who was adopted and raised as a sister, and brings about complications when she and Ignatz fall in love and eventually marry.

Even then, the seeds of anti-Semitism are present:  Ignatz is advised to change his name to sound less Jewish in order to further his career.  Emmanuel is wounded, but agrees to his children’s decision to adopt the name Sors. 

The first World War would change everything.  Ignatz is eventually faced with the prospect of interrogating and charging his own brother, who has become overtly Communistic during the war, as well as outspoken against the Hungarian emperor.   But tides changed quickly in this part of history, and the film captures that beautifully.  With the end of the war and the fall of the Monarchy, it is soon Ignatz who finds himself the victim of the retribution-seeking lower classes.  He had woven his life into the very fabric of the monarchy; it is no subtle notion that as it fell, his marriage crumbled and his health crumbled away.

Between the two wars, Ignatz and Valerie’s youngest son, Adam (Fiennes again) takes up fencing as a means to combat more and more open expressions of anti-Semitism.  He has a talent, and soon becomes one of the most prized competitive fencers in the country.  His dream is to join the Officers’ Club team, with a chance for Olympic glory.  The problem?  Jews aren’t allowed in the Club.  No problem.  He converts to Catholicism.

In some ways, Adam is the most tragic of the three central figures, because he seems to deliberately blind himself to the increasing turmoil and flames of hatred.  He is offered a chance to go to America by a Hungarian expatriate, and is repeatedly warned of the dangers.  Even when the Hungarian Parliament issues new laws against Jews, and he and his family listen to them proclaimed over the radio, he smiles in relief.  He is exempt for many reasons, including his father’s war decorations and being an Olympic medallist.

But when the Nazis occupied Hungary, such exemptions were futile, and in one of the film’s most horribly mesmerizing sequences, Adam is tortured by the Germans, who want him to confess his Judaism.  Adam, broken in spirit but not in will, meagerly but adamantly proclaims himself a Hungarian, repeating his exemptions mindlessly and pointlessly until the inevitable conclusion.

Young Ivan watched what happened to his father, and as he became a man (once again, Fiennes), we understand his embracing of the new Communist government.  After all, the Russians liberated the Jews from the Nazis and expressed a philosophy of equality.  But oppressed people who take power always seem to seek their revenge, and soon Ivan, with the help of a fellow Jew and ranking official Knorr (Hurt), becomes one of the leading interrogators.  They go after anybody who aided or stood by complacently during the terror, save for those who might prove valuable to the new government.  “Every regime needs its traitors,” Knorr says.  Use them for what they can do for you first…kill them later.

But suspicion of the Jews rises once again, and in a horrific turn of events, Ivan finds himself in the position of interrogating Knorr.  His superior tells him to beat him and torture him until he confesses his Zionist connections, and though no link is made directly, we can see in Ivan’s face the memory of watching his father tortured to achieve a confession.  Now, he is in that position, but the tables will turn once again.  The accusers always become the accused.

The film reminded me of Gone With the Wind, another extraordinary picture that brought history to life through the eyes of fictional characters we grow to understand and embrace.  At three hours, Sunshine should feel long…yet I felt no sense of the passage of time while watching it, and a deep sense of regret that it ended instead of continuing.

Writer/director Itsvan Szabo, himself a Hungarian, paints a humanistic picture of historical events he must know very well, and seems to express a keen interest in people’s behaviors at critical moments.  There is not a character in the Sors family we don’t empathize with, and even when some do terrible things, we reserve judgment, because we have been given the gift of understanding by Szabo.  We recognize that part of ourselves that is capable of rearing an ugly head at opportune moments.

The way he captures the spirit of change in his homeland is remarkable, ranging from the painfully obvious to the subtle.  Notice, for example, a ritualized gentlemanly hunt that occurs early on in the picture, which Ignatz takes part in.  There is another one near the end, with Ivan…similar in style and spirit, but with men shooting machine guns at their prey.  It’s a strange and startling exclamation point on the changes.

Yet for all the change, its also remarkable how the similar themes play out from one generation to the next.  An oppressive monarchy is replaced by an oppressive fascist state, which is in turn replaced by an oppressive Communist government.  In each case, people fled from one and embraced the next, only to find that the only major changes would be the roles of who were the victims and who were the jailors, and even those changes were often short lived.

These governments were aided by people’s willingness to buy into one illusion or another.  Ignatz rejected his family name but not his heritage in order to be something he really wasn’t, and paid a price.  Adam changed his heritage as well, and met his end in pained, stunning disbelief that those in power over him did not accept the illusion he had created and accepted for himself.   Ivan, too, temporarily buys into the illusion that his rank and authority grant him immunity from his heritage, but as the political tides turn once more toward the end of the movie, Ivan changes his name back to Sonnenschein, and at long last, walks down the streets of his town with a sense of pride and optimism that he feels has been absent from his family since the days of his great-grandfather, Emmanuel.

The recipe, which once built a family fortune and brought happiness to many, ends up appropriately lost.  The old “taste of sunshine” is gone, but with a renewed sense of hope and appreciation for his family history, we tend to believe Ivan will find his own.

Video ***

This is a good anamorphic transfer from Paramount, but with a few notable problems that arise from certain lower lit scenes.   These tend to lose definition and soften up a bit, with blacks become almost a wash of color with no lines or separations.  Most of these are early on in the picture, and are probably owing to unskilled filming techniques (very few photographers are masters of the art of shooting in low or available light).  Brighter scenes render detail and colors much more accurately and beautifully, with an excellent sharpness.  The disc doesn’t suffer from any signs of compression, undue grain or print problems, and all factors considered, still works as a quality transfer overall.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack makes sparing but effective uses of the rear stage from time to time, including some crowd oriented scenes, depictions of gunfire, and Maurice Jarre’s eloquent music score.  Dialogue is kept on the forward stage, and is always clean and clear.  Dynamic range is about medium, but that’s appropriate considering this is a drama and not an action film.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

I loved this movie whole heartedly and without reservation.  Sunshine earned great critical acclaim during its theatrical release, but didn’t really find the audience it deserved.  Now, DVD fans have a chance to experience what they might have missed.  This is a remarkable, powerful and absorbing historical drama, with a palate rich in emotion and a keen insight into humanity.  It’s easily one of the best films of 2000.  With a great script and a remarkable cast led by Ralph Fiennes in a trio of memorable roles, this is a movie experience you won’t soon forget.