review by niamh muldowney
László Nemes’ 2018 film Sunset (Napszállta) is a work of cinematic genius from the director of Son of Saul (2015). First shown at the Venice Film Festival last year, this film has finally landed in Ireland for a short run and is one any fan of cinema would be saddened to miss.
Sunset centers around Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) and her return to 1913 Budapest after many years away from it, along with her interactions with the Leiter hatshop, run by Oskár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). To reveal much more I’m afraid would negate some of the joy of seeing the film unfold before your eyes for the first time, as the drip-feeding of information to the audience is done with an expert touch. The connection this fosters between the audience and Írisz is incredible, as we are both uncovering the truth about her and her family’s history at the same time. Sunset is a character study, a mystery, and an exploration of how the past has a funny way of affecting the present.
While these may seem like disparate themes and genres, Sunset is remarkable for how tightly it all knits together. The film is expertly crafted, like an intricate 3D puzzle. Each shot, each line of dialogue, each choice in music fits together to create this beautiful film. Lines that seem offhand at first gain new relevance twenty minutes later, music slips between diegetic and non-diegetic until one act later when it’s retroactively brought fully into focus. There is a phenomenal doubling of scenes, returning to locations already visited, which consistently left me in awe.
This film is also a masterclass in tension; at moments of supposed peace, the tension is often so thick that the audience gets a palpable sense of it, and the last act is an exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat viewing experience. Seeing the culmination of the last two and a half hours come to a head is at the same time horrifying and immensely satisfying. The frantic energy that Nemes is able to capture on film is made only more impressive by the eerie moments of calm that arise in this act as well.
Another aspect of Sunset that I loved was its readiness to portray the past truthfully, without embellishments. While the term ‘period drama’ evokes images of Downton Abbey and Jane Austen film adaptations, the accuracy with which these efforts portray the period they’re set in is up for debate. For example, while the ‘downstairs’ lives of the servant characters in Downton Abbey are squeaky clean and aesthetically beautiful, in Sunset, there is a realness, a sense of cinéma vérité, to the portrayal of life behind the shining counters of Leiter’s. Budapest is made into a real living city on the cusp of great and irreversible change, and Nemes doesn’t shy away from portraying it in all it’s truth: good pleasant and unpleasant. One quote from the start of the film illustrates this perfectly for me: “Let’s lift this veil”. While at the time it is specifically referencing lifting the veil on a hat to fully reveal Jakab’s face to the audience, I also felt it very applicable to the film’s revealing of the darker side of Budapest that Írisz was about to discover.
In this way “through tattered clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all”, and Sunset fully explores this idea. Sunset is one of the most masterful pieces of filmmaking I have seen in a while and I would wholeheartedly recommend people see it while they have the chance.
Sunset is currently showing in select theatres.
Reviewer Warning: This film contains a scene of near sexual violence, and additional references to similar violent acts, and should be watched at the viewer’s discretion.