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Films you must see: Red Psalm, directed by Miklós Janscó

I bunged Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm (1972) onto an order of Christmas presents at the beginning of December, though I can’t for the life of me remember why. I’d seen Janscó’s The Red And The White before – in June 2010, and wrote then that it was “definitely worth seeing” – but what possessed me to buy a Jancsó DVD is something of a mystery. Perhaps it was a review in Sight & Sound. No matter. I bought it. And now I’ve watched it.

I think I was expecting a paean to socialism when I put the DVD in the player. The title, and Jancsó’s politics, certainly suggest as much. Even the film’s original Hungarian title, Még kér a nép (The People Still Demand), fosters this impression. Except Red Psalm, while certainly a socialist film, is no paean. It is based upon a number of peasant uprisings in Hungary between 1890 and 1910, and melds these into a single extended dramatic piece – though it has no plot, no characters, and no dialogue per se.

There are the workers, represented by a group of young people in peasant costumes. And there are the authorities, represented variously by the rural police, a bailiff, the army, the local count, and a priest. Most of the cast have 1970s haircuts, which does make it look all a bit hippie. The film takes place at a rural farming community and the countryside surrounding it, though no effort is made to give the story any real sense of place.

The workers walk around, either singing folk songs (often with socialist lyrics) or making small speechlets about socialism. The soldiers and policemen also walk around (or ride around on horseback), trying to either intimidate or charm the workers. No one stands still, everyone moves. This “balletic” movement is a feature of Jancsó’s style. One soldier defects to the workers but is shot. Later, he reappears, as if resurrected. A worker is shot through the hand, but her wound becomes a red rosette. Later, all the workers wear such rosettes.

The local count attempts to explain the benefits of capitalism to the workers – though it is an unconvincing argument – but seems to die of a heart attack when his words fall on deaf ears. His wife subsequently attacks the workers with a whip. A priest exhorts the workers to obey the authorities, claiming it is the godly thing to do, but is forced back into his church, which is then set on fire.

Throughout Red Psalm, there is a sense of a story in continual evolution. Characters exchange roles, dialogue is declamatory or explanatory, but does not progress anything as bourgeois as a plot. At the end, the workers and soldiers come together to celebrate but, at a signal, the soldiers then separate, form a cordon about the workers… and massacre them. Tellingly, the cordon is in the shape of a heart.

But even that death is not final, as the workers later re-appear. And one takes a soldier’s gun, and then kills all the soldiers.

Red Psalm is an argument, framed in song, movement, political oratory and the interactions between opposing groups. If its young and good-looking cast make it appear more of a hippie film than a socialist one, it’s an illusion that is quickly dispelled. It’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but I thought it excellent and have even bought The Miklós Jancsó Collection box set. And I think more of Jancsó’s films should be released on DVD.

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