Prove your humanity

Winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival and nominated for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, On Body and Soul is stirred lovingly by well-known Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi. She is the only female director of the five Academy Award nominations, and is up against other timeless pieces like the Russian-made Loveless (which you can read my review of here).

With such prestigious awards piling up already, please do not doubt the brilliance and the beauty of this film for a second.

Set in an unobtrusive, unremarkable slaughterhouse, it is an unlikely place for a romance. But love finds ways to grow in the most unusual places. Maria (Alexandra Borbely) is an awkward, timid woman with Aspergers syndrome, and she quickly gains the unwanted attention of her colleagues for being different when she starts her new job as Quality Inspector at the abattoir. But her crippled and watchful boss Endre (Geza Morcsanyi) looks at her kindly, trying to understand her better. When they realise that they are meeting each other in their dreams every night in the shape of deers, an infatuation between them springs to life.

The film attempts to show the extraordinary in the most ordinary of situations. It opens with the brutal killing of a cow in the slaughterhouse. As Enyedi herself has remarked, the scene was not an attempt to scare the audience away with gore and blood (although plenty of that there may be), but to show the terror in the cow’s eyes in the moments before it is killed, and the unmoved behaviour of the workers around it. They catch a smoke break, kill the cow, and then wash away the blood. Unremarkable.

One couldn’t, however, help but look away. This is what Enyedi says she wanted to achieve: “Slaughterhouses … [are] very normal workplace[s], but we are horrified when it is shown … we don’t want to show them. This is our decision, and if a culture is built on this sort of chosen blindness, it makes us neurotic, because we are not present in our life.” This present-ness is also a key theme of the film, to which I will return later.

Then there are the surreal, and yet entirely realistic, dreams of Maria and Endre. He is a stag, and she a doe. They are captured not as subjects of a documentary, but in the classic formalism of Hollywood. A close-up of the doe’s eyes; a framed shot of the ears twitching behind falling snow. Cinematographer Mate Herbai wanted to capture them with his childlike, evocative style, and he does so effortlessly. The crew spent months hanging with these wild deers in national parks, so that the animals would become accustomed to their presence, before being able to film them. The result is a moving picture of beautiful shots that combine the instinctive life force of the deers and the shifting landscape of a winter’s dream.

The dreams themselves are what Enyedi refers to as “the transcendent”: a natural force bringing Maria and Endre together to love one another. Drawing from the philosophy of Simone Weil, it is this power of nature and of being one with nature that the director felt was missing from our human lives. The only way we can find that presence, or transcendence, is through love. “When you are in love, nothing is hidden. It’s a moment of truth,” says Enyedi.

This was a film that began a little drowsily. I worried that it would be too art-house (read: pretentious and meaningless). Fortunately, this presumption was quickly blown out the window and I was left with nothing less than a pure cinematic masterpiece. What is undeniably key here is our connection to the characters and our desire to see them grow and love each other. Maria’s decision to teach herself what it is like to feel love—by touching the grass, listening to music, allowing sunlight to dip itself over her face—was truly breathtaking. It was a state of pure, unadulterated sensation of feeling and living in the moment—both for Maria, and for myself.

The sweet humour and lightness that exists in the dialogue between Maria and Endre suddenly shifts to horror when he rejects her, and she feels that she can no longer live with her newfound present-ness without Endre by her side. It shifts to humour again when, covered in blood, she rushes to pick up Endre’s call. I’ll let you figure that one out of yourself … or, better yet, you’ll just have to go and see the film.

What I can tell you though is that On Body and Soul is exactly what it’s title implies: it is an exploration of the stark nakedness of death, our bodily desires, our soul’s search for connection, and the interfusion of the two with the sweet, giving love between Maria and Endre. The phenomenal acting of the pair only distinguishes this film further. I was caught between laughter, shock, horror and transcendent awe the whole way through.

Will it win this year’s Best Foreign Language Film? Some say that nothing can beat Loveless’s transfixing, heart-wrenching drama; but, I have to say, I don’t mind the idea of a woman winning the award this time around. Either way, On Body and Soul is unapologetically and ceaselessly gorgeous. Bravo, Enyedi.


On Body and Soul is now showing at Cinema Paradiso.


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