SPIELBERG'S LEGACY—besides the dinosaurs, we mean—is that you can now make a three-hour historical epic about the fate of European Jewry, provided it's in English and stars Ralph Fiennes. In the wake of Schindler's List, the good intentions of Oscar-winning Hungarian director IstvᮠSzab�I>Mephisto) get the better of him in Sunshine, and of his audience, too. Serious, well acted, and intermittently powerful, it's a movie that nonetheless succumbs to a certain excess gravity, to an intellectual redundancy borne of intentional casting and belabored conceit. But don't blame Fiennes, who plays the men in three successive generations of a Budapest family barely weathering the storms of the 20th century.
directed by IstvᮠSzab�>with Ralph Fiennes, Jennifer Ehle, Rosemary Harris, and William Hurt
opens June 23 at Harvard Exit
He starts as Ignatz Sonnenschein, an uptight turn-of-the-century lawyer devoted to the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire—even if it means changing his family name to something less Jewish-sounding. Next he's the son of Ignatz, brash champion fencer Adam, who converts to Catholicism to make the 1936 Olympic team. Finally he's the grandson, Ivan, an atheistic Stalin-era secret policeman who grows to question the possibility of assimilation in a fundamentally anti-Semitic environment. It's a novel way of treating Sunshine's central themes—the generational erosion of cultural identity, the weakness of proud men—and Fiennes forcefully portrays each flawed protagonist's futile efforts to gain acceptance in Hungarian society. They keep making the same mistakes, over and over again.
Ambition is their downfall, of course, but there's also the sexual temptation represented by Ignatz's cousin Valerie—whom he marries, thus incurring "a curse," according to his sage, pious father. Free-spirited Valerie is initially played by Jennifer Ehle, and her scenes of halting, forbidden romance with Fiennes are quite good. Later, Valerie is played by Ehle's mother Rosemary Harris; her character becomes mother, then grandmother, to our multigenerational hero.
Throughout, Szab�eights his script with pocket debates on the political issues of each era, making the handsome picture a detailed but schematic history lesson for those inclined to sit through it. The arguments are always a bit reductive and one-sided, however, as Szab�early favors the organic, matrilineal spirit of the family—Valerie—over the dour, misguided men. Ignatz is "a man without feeling," Valerie says, but she survives long enough to help coax her grandson out of emotional withdrawal and ethnic alienation. Each hero also gets caught up in an impossible love triangle, which Szab�esumably means to equate with their self-delusion, echoing Sunshine's larger message. But it adds one layer too many to the repetitious story. It is, despite a harrowing concentration camp sequence, an ultimately affirmative film that celebrates "the gift of breathing freely"—which is a long, long time in coming.