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Movie Review: Shedding some light, 'Sunshine' tracks clan through ups, downs

Friday, June 30, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Ralph Fiennes achieved stardom by playing a Nazi death-camp commandant in "Schindler's List." He comes full circle in "Sunshine," in which he plays three different men from successive generations of the same Hungarian Jewish family.

Stunt casting? Not exactly, although director Istvan Szabo goes a step further. He uses actresses Rosemary Harris and Jennifer Ehle, who are mother and daughter, as older and younger versions of the same character.



RATING: R for strong sexuality, and for violence, language and nudity.

STARRING: Ralph Fiennes, Jennifer Ehle, Rosemary Harris.

DIRECTOR: Istvan Szabo.

Critic's call: THREE STARS.


They portray Valerie Sonnenschein (the name means Sunshine), whose life spans all but the first few minutes of this three-hour movie, which begins in the 1850s and ends more than 100 years later.

As the movie progresses, such actors as William Hurt, James Frain, Rachel Weisz, Deborah Unger and Miriam Margolyes take part in the saga, which is reminiscent of those old TV miniseries that recounted great moments in history through the eyes of a single family.

But Valerie is the constant, the calm eye around which the maelstrom of the 20th century rages. As it engulfs Europe, her family serves as microcosm, experiencing the horror first hand.

The themes of "Sunshine," now at the Squirrel Hill and Denis theaters, also divide into the general and the personal. The first may be summed up by a line from an old Who song: "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." The second is uttered repeatedly, to no avail, by Emmanuel (David De Keyser), patriarch of the Sonnenscheins: Remember who you are and where you come from.

His descendants turn a deaf ear, and they pay the consequences. His son Ignatz earns a law degree and becomes a judge in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the largely tolerant Emperor Franz Joseph. He has impressed his superiors, who recommend him for higher office. But there's a catch. Couldn't he come up with a less Jewish name?

Ignatz's son Adam grows up under the rise of fascism in Europe. After bullies humiliate him one day, he decides to take up fencing. His talent is obvious, but to compete at the highest levels he would have to join a fencing club that does not admit Jews.

Adam's son Ivan comes of age after World War II, joining the Hungarian communists in search of revenge against fascists. Like his forebears, he believes that he has been accepted by the ruling class. Will he, too, allow that belief to destroy him?

Early on, Emmanuel Sonnenschein warns his children that God gives us lusts and temptations so that we may resist them and win our reward. They don't listen. Women who each represent a kind of forbidden fruit beguile Ignatz, Adam and Ivan. None of them is able to hold back. So how could they possibly keep themselves from yielding to the lure of ambition, the promise of assimilation?

Three men, one dream. Fiennes gives each of them a different look and a different temperament, yet his presence not only ties them together but also reflects the persistence of the chimera, the stubbornness of the false hope of assimilation.

When his characters dress up in fancy uniforms and walk through buildings of monumental scale where majestic men wield their power, it must seem that these mighty rulers and their great edifices must endure forever. They mistake the trappings for the substance. Men die, rulers are overthrown, new regimes take over. The politics change but the malevolence endures.

The alternative lies in home and hearth, the comfort of the familiar rooms of the Sonnenschein home and particularly its courtyard, where renewal occurs repeatedly throughout the film and even a kind of miracle.

Szabo is best known in America for the 1981 film "Mephisto," about a German stage actor who finds popularity in a Faustian drama at the time the Nazis are taking power, all but losing his own identity in the process.

Obviously, the themes of "Sunshine" are not new to Szabo, who was born in Budapest in 1938. Some elements of the film are autobiographical, and he has clearly drawn on his country's history.

The tone is melodramatic and the movie sometimes sprawls all over itself. But as the characters find themselves doomed to repeat history while Hungary endures the same bitter old wine in bottles with new labels (empire, fascism, communism), the impact of the recurring tragedy of European history and of humanity's darker impulses dashes one's optimism with the force of a blunt instrument.

But Szabo leaves us a ray of hope in the end, when Sunshine literally rises from the darkness.

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