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'American Rhapsody'

Struggle for freedom: Girl caught between family's two worlds in 'American Rhapsody'

Friday, September 07, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"An American Rhapsody" uses the wrenching childhood of writer-director Eva Gardos to demonstrate how, in the name of freedom, we sometimes manage to create our own prisons.

    Movie Review


RATING: PG-13 for some violent content and thematic material.

STARRING: Nastassja Kinski, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Goldwyn.

DIRECTOR: Eva Gardos.

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.


Now at the Manor theater, this dramatization of her family's true story begins in the 1950s with publisher Peter (Tony Goldwyn) and his upper-class wife, Margit (Nastassja Kinski), leaving behind almost everything they own in the rush to escape from Communist Hungary one step ahead of the authorities.

Their trek, by train and over land, sometimes in disguise, makes it impossible to bring their infant daughter, Suzanne. She is to be smuggled out separately, with the family proceeding to America.

But something goes wrong, and Suzanne (endearingly played as a child by Kelly Endresz Banlaki) winds up with a kindly, childless couple who live deep in the Hungarian countryside. As she approaches school age, she has no idea that Jeno (Balazs Galko) and Teri (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi) are not her real parents. Their pastoral life, simple but satisfying and filled with love, seems like heaven on earth.

So when Margit and Peter, now living in California, finally get permission for Suzanne to leave Hungary, the abrupt transition leaves the girl caught between two vastly different cultures. By the time she becomes a teen-ager (played with realistic angst by Scarlett Johansson), she has an identity crisis as powerful and potentially destructive as the San Andreas Fault.

In the film's crowning bit of irony, Margit -- who fought so hard for her family's freedom and was traumatized by her separation from Suzanne -- turns almost literally into the girl's jailer when the teen-ager tries to find her own freedom, as adolescents do. Just how far Suzanne must go is revealed in the film's opening shot, when she talks about returning to Hungary in an attempt to put the pieces of her life together.

Gardos, production designer Alex Tavoularis and cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi perfectly re-create the look and feel of 1950s American suburbia with its rows of ticky-tacky houses and big cars with tailfins in the driveway. The men wear colorful sports shirts while grilling burgers in the back yard. Their optimism is as bright as the sunlight, which seems almost too vivid -- a bit unreal, perhaps like our expectations in that decade and our worship of the consumer culture (Suzanne's assimilated older sister has become a firm disciple of TV and Coca-Cola).

Suzanne is also trapped by her yearning for the simple pleasures and uncomplicated love of her Hungarian family, unaware despite Margit's harping of what her real parents had to go through. Her journey of discovery is marred chiefly by a perfunctory ending that resolves everything too easily. Otherwise, "An American Rhapsody" offers a heartfelt story that is all the more poignant for Gardos' personal knowledge of the plight of her characters and her evenhanded treatment of them.

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