Pras on WorldFilms: KONTROLL

Nimrod Antal’s “Kontroll,” is set and was filmed entirely in the Budapest subway system. The File:Kontroll poster.jpgBudapest subway system, the world’s second oldest, is a dark, labyrinthine netherworld as vast and various as the city above it. Of the hoards of people who can be found there, most are passing through on their ways to better, brighter places, where the sunlight shines and fresh breezes blow. But, there are those who spend most of their lives underground – the beleaguered ticket inspectors or “controllers”, who are assigned in teams to various sections of the system, and whose thankless job it is to ensure that no passengers ride without paying. Deployed by those in control – unseen authority figures who monitor the trains and travelers on massive grids and screens – these inspector teams are a much-despised lot. Who, on his way to work or to an appointment, wants to be stopped and asked for a receipt? And who, having sneaked through a turnstile, wants to be apprehended by petty officers who represent power at its most powerless.

KontrollThe setting of Kontroll is the Budapest subway system, one of the largest and oldest in the world, and a place that becomes an omniscient character in an ambitious film that jumbles dark comedy, slick action, and horror-movie conventions. Kontroll revolves around a nomadic lost-soul named Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi), who works as a “controller”, or ticket inspector. Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) is part of a team of disheveled ticket inspectors–controllers–who roam the grimy, fluorescent-lit city-under-the-city in a soul-destroying ritual.  The job has  become such a part of Bulcsú that he never leaves the underground. Bulcsu’s life—and the entirety of “Kontroll”—happens underground. He sleeps in abandoned subway stations, spends his days checking for tickets, eats and drinks whatever the vending machines offer, and for kicks, he runs on the train tracks.  It has been months since he last saw the light of day, resorting to sleeping on the decks and walking around like an anemic zombie. He spends most of his time with his peers, as they carry out their unrewarding jobs. The passengers on the train do not appreciate being nagged for their tickets, and they treat the inspectors like annoying gnats they wish to squash. Some of the patrons even attack the workers with forceful hatred. Bulcsu progressively gets more unkempt as he accumulates more bruises, bloody noses, and bitterness from his scraps with a variety of unseemly creatures of the night (and day).  There seem to be reasons for his self-imprisonment, but the film never answers the questions it poses. A mysterious hooded figure is pushing people off the platforms to their death, and the turn of events disturbs the people running the Subway system, since multiple deaths in a short period of time can be detrimental to a company’s reputation.

Bulcsu and his coworkers are an outrageous of bruisers, lunatics, narcoleptics and drunks, and appear to be the outcast slackers of their division,  often getting into trouble, poking fun at each other, and using as little of their potential as humanly possible. Sometimes they play dangerous games, such as ‘railing’, which involves racing behind a train and trying to get to the next subway platform before the next train plows you down.  When Bulcsu bumps into someone he used to know in his life, he pretends he is simply a passenger, rather than a shameful employee of the system.Occasionally, one of them loses it and slits a ticketless rider’s throat; owls appear in unlikely places, and every now and then, crowds of ravers take over the hallways to play the worst techno Europe has to offer.

Among the post-punk, post-communist habitués of this subterranean metropolis are a cute pigtailed girl in a teddy-bear costume, a train driver that acts as a caring father figure, and a troublesome delinquent named Bootsie (Bence Matyassy). Also are a rival crews of ticket inspectors roam the underground hallways of the Budapest subway system, busting fare dodgers who also like to play a deadly game of chicken with express trains, and a hooded specter who may or may not be pushing people under subway wheels at crowded stops.

Sandor Csanyi, left, and Eszter Balla in "Kontroll," directed by Nimrod Antal.

There are many things to admire and respect about Kontroll, the first feature from Hungarian writer/director Nimrod Antal. He offers a different style of film, which is always welcome, especially around this time of year when most studio releases are barely watchable. The film’s artsy, music video type atmosphere keeps your blood pumping, and a few times made me want to dance in my seat.  Antal’s script is long on amusing vignettes and short on thematic profundity, saddling its alienated protagonist with a love interest (Eszter Balla’s bear costume-wearing Szofi, the daughter of a friendly train operator) .
Moodily photographed and invested with heavy symbolism that points nowhere in particular, “Kontroll” is best enjoyed as a slightly overlong trip into an odd, man-made corner of hell, a dreamlike exploration of urban alienation and despair. If Nimrod Antal set out to make a modern myth, a gender-reversed Orpheus, it appears that he almost succeeded. But by the time the pretty girl in the costume finally takes Bulcsu’s hand and pulls him on the up escalator, the audience is ready for some daylight, too. Mr. Antal’s request for access to the tunnels and stations underneath the city, acording to him, were at first greeted with some apprehension, and he admits that the finished movie might not create a favorable impression of the subway or its employees. Still, he thinks it will be clear enough that the filmmaker’s intentions were “symbolic.”

Nimrod Antal’s “Kontroll” is a terse, claustrophobic debut, rich in gritty characters and shocking incidents but short on explanation, rhyme, or reason. Moodily photographed and invested with heavy symbolism that points nowhere in particular, “Kontroll” is best enjoyed as a slightly overlong trip into an odd, man-made corner of hell, a dreamlike exploration of urban alienation and despair. If Nimrod Antal set out to make a modern myth, a gender-reversed Orpheus, it appears that he almost succeeded. But by the time the pretty girl in the costume finally takes Bulcsu’s hand and pulls him on the up escalator, the audience is ready for some daylight, too. Kontroll is often a bumpy ride but distinguishes itself by introducing a frightening new brand of serial killer, and by by that it marks a breakthrough for Hungarian cinema.

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