Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics releases the film on Friday, March 22.
Béla Tarr may have retired, but Hungarian cinema has found a worthy standard-bearer in László Nemes. “Sunset” confirms the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” director as a major talent, one whose sophomore feature is both astonishingly beautiful and profoundly sorrowful: It unfolds like a cross between a memory and a dream, the kind so vivid you’ll swear it was real as you hang on to every half-remembered detail. Nemes displays flashes of his mentor’s formal mastery even as he emerges as a unique cinematic voice in his own right, one that may only grow louder and more prominent in the years to come.
His new film tells of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab, a familiar face from “Saul”), a 20-year-old orphan who returns to her hometown of Budapest for the first time since childhood and discovers that, not only does she have a brother, but he’s said to have murdered a count five years earlier and gone into hiding. Her parents owned a prestigious hat shop in the city, and following their death in a fire many years earlier the store still carries their name but no other trace of them — something Írisz wishes to rectify.
No one she speaks to wants to tell her anything, making the film a kind of first-person mystery (albeit one whose pre–World War I setting of 1913 offers a key clue as to what’s really going on). Everyone she meets treats her warily, as though she’s somehow complicit in the crimes of the sibling she never knew; one man gives her vague warnings like “blood will flow this week” and “you’ve awakened us.” The nature of this coming violence isn’t made clear until long after Írisz is powerless to stop it, lending an elegiac feel to the goings on that’s very much in keeping with the experiential aesthetic Nemes established in his powerful debut. “Sunset” likewise takes place over just a few short days, with extended real-time sequences that make you feel as though you’re right there alongside Írisz.
The camera is often trained just inches from her face, as it was on Géza Röhrig’s in “Saul,” which is to the film’s benefit: Jakab has the arresting visage of a silent era star, with defined features and ocean-deep eyes that seem to contain worlds of their own. It’ll be a crime if we don’t see much more of her in the years to come, as this would be a major breakthrough performance in any just universe — Jakab says little but expresses much, often so caught up in the chaos and confusion engulfing her that all she can do is keep moving through this dreamlike experience.
“Sunset” is shot almost entirely in roving long takes that follow her closely, the effect of which somehow never wears off; the more Mátyás Erdély’s stunning cinematography draws us into Írisz’s world, the more you want to linger there despite its looming danger. This is cinema with a capital C, the kind of film that image-makers will lust after as they study its many awe-inspiring scenes. (Not coincidentally, “Sunset” was shot on 35mm and, at least at its Venice Film Festival premiere, also projected on it.) One such sequence begins at a late-night soirée that quickly turns bloody, ending with Írisz narrowly escaping the ordeal and looking on as torches illuminate the nighttime violence. Like the film as a whole, it’s as harrowing as it is breathtaking.
With the one-two punch of “Saul” and now this, one would be hard-pressed to name a better director of period pieces than Nemes — not the flashy, costume-driven sort but the kind of immersive experiences that make you feel as though you’ve caught an actual glimpse of the time and place as it actually existed, untouched by time. That these are dark, violent eras only makes the experience more intoxicating: “Sunset” invites you to revel in the last moments of Budapest’s pre-war grandeur even as you mourn what will soon befall it.
There’s sadness and beauty in every frame, as though Nemes is nostalgic for this era despite not being born until many decades after the sun had indeed set on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things,” one of those shadowy men tells Írisz in a crucial scene; that’s as close as the filmmaker comes to offering a thesis statement, and he doesn’t allow us the same distance as the aloof bourgeoises whose time is coming to an end. “Sunset” exposes that horror while also finding great beauty in it — it might not be infinitely pretty, but it’s worth remembering and preserving nevertheless.
“Sunset” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.