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Photograph by Adrienn Szabo

Subway Sandwich: Fare checkers keep passengers on edge in this tale of subterranean evil.

Budapest Underground

A grim Hungarian comedy full of urban rot and greenish faces, 'Kontroll' is the stuff of midnight movies

By Richard von Busack

Growing up in the suburbs, children hear magic stories about trains that run underground. Just like all the New York and London children who dream about visiting those golden California sands, many local kids dreamed of being able to descend those forbidding but enticing stairs, push through the turnstile and ride an honest-to-God subway.

Fate pays you back for such a wish. You grow up, move to a city and end up every morning and evening squashed in a cattle car with other commuters, paying through the nose and praying that a strike won't make matters worse. The Budapest subway is the site of the grim Hungarian comedy Kontroll, supposedly the most popular native-grown film in the history of Hungarian cinema.

It's most Hungarian right at the opening, with a prime example of Eastern European humor: satirical doubletalk by authority. A representative of Budapest Transport reads a prepared statement from a clipboard. He lets us know that what we are about to see in no way represents actual conditions on the Hungarian capital's underground.

Kontroll kicks off with horror-movie efficiency. A rhinestone-covered streetwalker totters down the escalator late one night. As she sways drunk on the platform, the lights short out. When they come up again, she's under the wheels. One more suicide in a nation famous for them; there have been seven in the subway just recently. So it would seem--but we saw a supernatural figure sneak up behind the prostitute, just before everything went black.

The only ones who have a hint of the bad karma going on underground are the subway's fare checkers. They're a universally loathed breed of men. Like the taxi drivers grousing over their donuts with Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle, the fare checkers are close to snapping; one rageball has sporadic narcoleptic pass-outs. The men sneak up on the passengers, fining the many, many fare dodgers. It's a cross section of riffraff: skinheads, troublesome Gypsies, whoremasters who try to pay them off with a tryst with their girls and Japanese tourists who pretend not to understand what the matter is.

Down this mean subway a man must go who is not mean. The ever-battered hero Bulscu (Sandor Csanyi) seems like a stooge at first, someone too gentle for this hooligan job. As we watch him, he develops something of Javier Bardem's self-amusement and courtliness in the face of trouble. By the end of the film, Bulscu is the last man standing at a High Midnight showdown. The only one he can really count on is Bela, a paternal train conductor (Lajos Kovacs) who keeps subterranean evil at bay with holy cards and sacred candles.

Things are so ugly that one pretty thing in the movie is all the prettier: a silent, wistful girl (Eszter Balla) who commutes to her McJob in a teddy-bear suit. The petite, crushworthy Balla is as much a compliment to the costume as Nastassja Kinski was. Cinema is referential as hell lately, but I trust this is the only quote from The Hotel New Hampshire we'll be getting for the near future.

Kontroll, the stuff of midnight movies, offers the kind of atmosphere David (Fight Club) Fincher pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-create: urban rot, blackened bricks, raw, greenish faces with bags under their eyes so deep they look like they've been thumbed in with daubs of shoe polish. Hungarian is no doubt a pretty language when spoken gently, but when these characters snarl at each other it sounds as guttural as Klingonese. First-time director Nimrod Antal knows from the conventions of the action films, from the breakneck chases to the mysterious killer. And he's soaked in the Coen Brothers.

But his montages don't have much structural strength or rhythm, particularly when the fare collectors are arguing with their we-can't-pay, we-won't-pay passengers. The murder mystery is never resolved; it's clear that it's just there to hold the episodic story together.

Still, Antal has an original eye for locations and compositions. He finds titanic vent fans for Bulscu to rest under, and he hauls us through the dank rails and lonely corridors, bleached with sickening fluorescent light. It's a world in which nothing else exists but graey commuters and acts of bruising violence, and the escalator out is a stairway to heaven.

Kontroll (R; 105 min.), directed and written by Nimrod Antal and starring Sandor Csanyi, opens Friday at the Nickleodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the June 29-July 6, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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