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Mother on the Move: Margit (Nastassja Kinski) must emigrate from Hungary to the United States in 'An American Rhapsody.'

Exile Files

A couple and their daughter adjust to the mixed rhapsody of life in America

By Jim Aquino

AN UNEVEN first directorial effort from veteran Hungarian-born editor Eva Gardos (Valley Girl, Barfly), An American Rhapsody is a semiautobiographical drama about immigrant sacrifice and assimilation that will resonate with anybody in the audience who's an immigrant or a child of immigrants, even though Gardos loses her grip on the material in the third act.

For most of the film, Gardos doesn't rush or sugarcoat the story of Hungarian refugee parents Margit and Peter (Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn), their separation from their infant daughter, Suzanne (Kelly Endresz Banlaki as a child, Scarlett Johansson as a teen), and Suzanne's later adjustment to life in 1960s SoCal suburbia, which becomes almost as much of an ordeal as her parents' exile.

But then Gardos feels obligated to slap on an abrupt, pat and sentimental conclusion, as if she were concerned about keeping the film's length at about 100 minutes for network TV airplay (without commercials, an average two-hour movie runs close to that length). Maybe that explains why An American Rhapsody sometimes has a Sunday-night TV-movie feel, especially during the melodramatic shouting matches between the teenage Suzanne and the overly strict Margit.

Before moving to California, Margit was a member of a wealthy Hungarian family targeted by the government for reasons that Gardos doesn't disclose until late in the movie. Her book publisher husband organizes an elaborate escape plan for himself, Margit and their two daughters, 4-year-old Maria and then-infant Suzanne.

To keep Suzanne safe, Margit and Peter are forced to leave their baby behind in Hungary, where she ends up living for five years in the countryside with middle-aged foster parents Teri and Jeno (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi and Balazs Galko), who adore her. When a 6-year-old Suzanne is finally reunited with her real family in America, it becomes clear that she prefers her simpler, quieter life with Teri and Jeno over life with Margit and Peter and the strange new country they've adopted as their homeland.

Kinski is a bit too glamorous for her role; she barely resembles Gardos' rumpled-looking mother, as one can see in a photo of the director's real-life parents at the end of the movie.

Faring better in a smaller role as the more understanding and level-headed parent is Goldwyn, who's usually been cast as either cretins or neurotics (in the early '90s, he would play many of the handsome-but-weaselly yuppie-scum roles Greg Kinnear gets these days). Goldwyn, who portrays Peter as a father who treats his daughters not as children but as equals, possibly to compensate for being away from home too often because of his stateside job at a plane factory, has a couple of beautifully played scenes with the nonprofessional, gap-toothed Banlaki.

In one scene, Peter discovers that Suzanne shares his love for books like Tom Sawyer, and in another, Peter approaches Suzanne with a vow to let her visit her foster parents when she's older if she agrees to give him and Margit a chance. These moments, however, veer dangerously close to the pathetic, horrendous territory of those speech-and-hug scenes in the nuclear-family sitcoms that were popular during the movie's period.

But as with most of the rest of An American Rhapsody, Gardos makes these scenes affecting while managing to keep her finger off emotional buttons more cloying filmmakers can't avoid pushing.

An American Rhapsody (PG-13; 107 min.), directed and written by Eva Gardos, photographed by Elemér Ragalyi and starring Nastassja Kinski, Tony Goldwyn and Scarlett Johansson, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the August 23-29, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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