A mysterious black man walks the boundless Hungarian prairies, whistling an indistinguishable tune. Without a leaf of shade in sight, the scorching sun practically penetrates the screen through Szabolcs Hajdu’s opening sequence, and when the stranger stops to take his leather jacket off, looking towards the endless horizon, the title “Mirage” envelops the sky. With this minimalistic grasp of cinematic fundamentals, Hajdu establishes the tone of his modern Western in scintillating style. Shot on 35mm film, exploiting every corner of its CinemaScopic aspect ratio, “Mirage” is a dream for fans of gorgeous, squinty-eyed, atmospheric Westerns.
The outsider is Francis (Isaach De Bankolé), a name we only find out 30 minutes into the film. Until then, he’s very much the embodiment of a modern Man With No Name, wandering from one desolate place to the next. He happens upon a semi-abandoned train station, where he meets a none-too-friendly train conductor, his sweaty expression riddled with distrust. After a characteristically Sergio Leone-esque meet-and-greet between the two, Francis (speaking broken Hungarian) asks to go to the tavern. The conductor tells him he’ll have to wait; something Francis has been doing, it seems, all his life. The locomotive engineer is an old man who looks like he stepped out of the 1900s. He finds Francis waiting on the bench, pats him on the knee with familiarity, and tries climbing up to his cab, without much success. Francis helps him up, and jumps on board the train’s only wagon, continuing his mysterious voyage forward.
Francis finally ends up in a homestead, in the middle of nowhere, where his drifting comes to a halt. Along with his name, we find out more about his background, and what brought him so far from his native Ivory Coast. He meets Cisco (Razvan Vasilescu), the man who’s running things and who oddly enough speaks fluent French. The story develops and starts to veer toward a dreamlike tone where, sadly, it begins to lose us. It starts to become increasingly apparent that there’s little meat to be found in Hajdu’s stripped-down cinema here, and story-wise it starts to lose appeal, along with our interest. The climactic confrontation between Francis and Cisco, for example, is a bit too windless for our tastes, but the film almost makes up for all its narrative hitches by the end. Even if it starts to stretch its succinct 90-minute running time, we’d recommend “Mirage” in a heartbeat for its lavish cinematography and wonderfully odd contemporary Western vibe.
It plays out like Werner Herzog and Jim Jarmusch teamed up to make a Leone homage. The placeless location, thanks to András Nagy’s cinematography and Hajdu’s masterfully controlled direction, becomes more alive than most of the characters in the film, recalling Herzog’s concept of filming landscapes as a way to “show an inner state of mind.” The infinite plains of farmland, frequent mention or gesticulation directed towards the merciless sun, and Francis’ sunglasses reflecting the deserted vastness, all add to the character of this panorama. The physical appearance of some of the background characters, and their awkward apprehension, is very Jarmusch, while Billy Martin’s westward melodies in the score keep the ambiance as homey as apple pie.
“Mirage” is Szabolcs Hajdu’s fifth feature-length film, and with it, he’s affirmed that Hungarian cinema post-Bela Tarr has a very good future if it remains in his hands. Collaborating with Nagy for the third time, Hajdu has a keen sense of how to build thematic meaning through image, sound, and a patient approach. Bankolé is an impregnable rock of a man, perfectly cast in the central role and making a major contribution to the magnetism of the picture. Overall, it may get a little too inebriated on its own allure, but “Mirage” has a hypnotic charm that’s oddly effective right through its stupendous final shot. [B]