Scarlett Johansson as Suzanne Sandor
Directed by Éva Gárdos
Written by Éva Gárdos
Release Year 2001
MPAA Rating PG-13
“It was the summer of 1965. I was fifteen and my life was already falling apart. So I came back to Hungary, where it all began.”
Budapest, Hungary, just after World War 2. The city is still devastated, the land still trying to recover from the war – but a new danger is arising: an oppressive Communist regime, Hungary becomes a Russian satellite. In all this turmoil is a young family: Peter and Margit with their daughters Maria and Suzanne, the latter still a baby. They are some kind of upper class and therefore in yet greater danger than others. Their goal is to get out and to America. They organise an escape: The parents and the older daughter first and the baby later separately – within no more than a week they should be reunited in Vienna, Austria. The first part is successful but Margit’s mother doesn’t trust the smuggler woman who should take care of Suzanne and keeps her. As the secret police is arriving, Gyuri, Peter’s best friend brings the baby to the countryside, where it shouldn’t be found. The grandmother is brought to prison. In the meantime, the rest of the family is safe and holds 4 visas to America, there’s no way to get back safely, they have to go on – no matter how painful it is to leave their baby behind.
This is how the story begins. One decision made by the grandmother affects the lives of many. While we see how the incomplete family starts over in Los Angeles, struggles with boring jobs, we see Suzanne growing up with a lovely couple in the countryside. They are so affectionate and we can feel the deep bond that exists between them. However, there is the real mother longing to see her baby again, and thus somehow neglecting Maria and her husband. She is writing countless letters to influential people, begging for help. After 6 years her dream comes true. Thanks to the Red Cross the family is happily reunited. At least from the mother’s point of view. Suzanne thinks, that she’ll be back for school. Her foster parents think that the grandmother, who’s recently been released from prison, is taking her to see Budapest and then returning in time for school. But she’s in good old USA to stay, as her older sister puts it. When this gets to Suzanne, she runs away and her father makes a deal with her: she tries to like it in America and later, if she still wants to go back, he will buy her a ticket.
And now, after 60 minutes, we get to see Scarlett playing 15 year old Suzanne. Torn between modern 60s life and the strict family life, she rebels. The father is away for business and the mother who loves her daughter deeply can’t deal with her. Suzanne doesn’t listen to her mother at all, a mother she has never understood, a mother she hasn’t seen for the first 6 years of her life. To stop Suzanne from sneaking out at night the mother has a metal grating installed over the window and a lock placed on the door. With nothing to do except to smoke and paint toe nails, Suzanne is dreaming even more of her past, she takes out the long hidden away suitcase she travelled with when going with her grandmother on the fatal trip to ‘Budapest’, leaving her ‘parents’ behind. But her anger towards her mother also has time to rise. And when she takes out a rifle, which was among the hidden away things, she shoots through the door and smashes it open. The father comes home just a little too late. This marks the climax of a tension which has started building up 9 years before when the family was reunited. Suzanne apologizes but she also wants her father to keep his promise to let her go back, this is the only way she can come to terms with herself.
In the final part Suzanne learns more not only about the country she remembers only from the eyes of a little girl but also about the terrible past of her mother. During her stay in Budapest (pronounced ‘Budapesht’) we see her character grow up, we see how her eyes open up and how she understands more, herself, both her parents and her grandmother who has made the all changing decision 15 years ago. At home, her decision to go back forces her mother to think about her attitude towards her daughter and life in general. So part of the last sentence on the back of the DVD case is true not only for Suzanne but also for her mother Margit: ‘a personal search that reveals … the true meaning of family, freedom and home.’
This story is not just fiction, it is inspired by the story of the director Eva Gardos’ childhood. But her aim wasn’t just to tell a true story, even if it is her own, she also wanted to show how world events and a decision made by one single person affects many people. Therefore we get to see the events not only from the real mother’s point of view, and we don’t see Suzanne just at the age of 15 but also when she was a sweet little girl. All in all the film works very well, it is moves on on an agreeable pace and yet doesn’t lose too much time on unnecessary dialogue. What would have been interesting is to see more of Maria, the older sister or of Paul, Suzanne’s boyfriend, but then the film would be much longer, and it is okay the way it is.
Scarlett Johansson’s Role
Scarlett Johansson plays 15 year old Suzanne. Although she is second billed to Nastassja Kinski, she only has 45 minutes screen minutes (out of 106). Her role is a demanding one, getting over that she has identity problems and yet is just a teenager rebelling. But I think Scarlett did a wonderful job. I think it is great how she makes you believe that her character changes from taking no interest in her mother at all to start to form a real mother-daughter relationship. And it is very interesting to see how she deals with all the things she sees in Budapest. She also has to understand her love for her foster parents and her real ones. She has to try to accept the facts and people that dominate who she is and out of that make something of her own. This complex development in the end of the film is what gives the film the final depth and Scarlett masters to live up to the scenes. Together with the other actresses who played her and her sister at young, she makes you understand the film.
… Nastassja Kinski
… Raffaella Bánsági
… Tony Goldwyn
… Ágnes Bánfalvy
… Emmy Rossum
Trivia & Facts
• American Rhapsody was the 1998 grand prize winner of the Hartley-Merrill International Screenwriting Competition.
Quotes: Scarlett Johansson
• Scarlett on a playing a character in the 60s: “My mom grew up in the ’60s’. I’ve heard about the ’60s my whole life and studied the period in school. I studied the Cold War, too, so I was aware of the storyline’s political background. But I really didn’t take the time period into consideration too much. I played the character. You put on your clothes, get your flip and your eyeliner, look in the mirror and you’re a different person.”
• Scarlett on making a film that’s based on true events: “Having Eva Gardos around helped me tremendously. She was able to say, ‘This is how it felt to be in this circumstance. I remember this clearly. I remember this conversation, this argument with my mother’. But Eva also came to the conclusion that as much as it’s her story, the film isn’t an autobiography. Elements of the story were fabricated a bit, like the relationship with the boyfriend. And other things were made pretty because it is a movie.”
• Eva Gardos (Director): “When I met her, I just felt there was something very solid and strong about her. I didn’t want someone who was eternally cute. I think she has a really interesting face and interesting responses. I like watching her.”
Quotes: Her Character
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