A Budapest abattoir makes the unlikely backdrop to romance in “On Body and Soul,” Hungary’s best foreign language film contender at next month’s Academy Awards.
Equal parts cryptic and disturbing, Ildikó Enyedi’s film pairs up two lonely souls — an older manager, self-conscious over his age, his loneliness and his disabled arm, and the on-the-spectrum young “quality specialist” doctor (Veterinarian? Agricultural researcher?) whose arrival haunts his dreams.
Oh no, it’s not) THAT kind of movie. The dreams are something they share, an un-erotic pairing where they’re both deer, wandering the wintry woods, silently connecting by a stream, a lake or hunting for grass beneath the freshly fallen snow.
Endre (writer, playwright and dramaturg Géza Morcsányi) is a sixtysomething financial director/manager at the slaughterhouse. He’s gone years without visiting the slaughterhouse floor. The film spares few gory details from us, the camera lingering over the sentient-enough eyes of cattle being led in to their deaths.
He won’t say he’s bothered by this, but a smirking new hire gets a sobering reminder that this is not a job for insensate brutes.
“If you don’t feel sorry for them,” he says (in Hungarian, with English subtitles), “it’s not going to work out.” He is warned, more than once, that if he doesn’t have empathy for the animals, he’s going to have a breakdown.
Maria (Alexandra Borbély, a Slavic Saoirse Ronan) is equally new, a stickler for regulation and a tad robotic. She isn’t blind to the blue collar workforce’s chilly mockery of her. She simply doesn’t know or have the impulse to fit in, to warm up to others and make them want to befriend her.
“Asperger’s,” you think. Not that anybody here mentions that.
It takes a crime to connect the brusque and somewhat tactless Maria to the twice-her-age boss. Something was stolen at the office. Cops are involved.
And the annual “mental hygiene” check-up — a safeguard against the very breakdowns Endre warns others about — becomes the device the police plan to use to narrow their list of suspects.
The interviews with the pretty shrink (Reka Tinki) turn testy almost straight away. And when Endre and Maria, barely on speaking turns, reveal something they have in common in those interviews, the evaluating psychotherapist violates their privacy by confronting them about it. That, eventually, arouses Maria and Endre’s curiosity.
Writer-director Enyedi is making a larger statement about sentience, compassion and empathy, with her many lingering close-ups of cattle and deer faces and eyes. She ties that to Maria’s autistic disconnection from people, which while not severe enough to keep her out of work, is something she’s aware of, an aching need to connect even as she shuns the human touch.
Maria will try anything — music (which fails to move her), a budding friendship with this odd colleague with the shared dreams, or even an affair — to break out of her loneliness, the communication barrier facing those cattle who may have more going on in their heads that beef eaters would care to know.
“On Body and Soul” isn’t as linear in its storytelling style or as results-oriented in its plot as a Hollywood or Western European film wrestling with these themes might be. That’s why the foreign language Oscar category is so valuable. It insists that viewers at least take a shot at seeing the world through another culture’s eyes via challenging films.
The storytelling lacks urgency and the film lacks pace. And for such a talkative movie, the subtitling is maddeningly indifferent, inconsistent and incomplete. Thanks, Netflix.
But in perhaps the most adventurous foreign language field of competitors in years, this Hungarian work makes for a fascinating conversation starter and intellectual debate.
Just don’t plan on having that argument over steaks or burgers.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with scenes of cattle slaughter and discussions of sexuality
Credits: Written and directed by Ildikó Enyedi. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:55