It is certainly no easy task to make a film about the current state of a polarized country, to deliver a heavy—if not insufferable—feeling of hopelessness while managing to tell a compelling story and keeping the viewers hooked. Luckily, Gábor Reisz’s third feature, Explanation for Everything, achieves this very ambitious goal, and does so brilliantly.
The picture, world-premiered in the Orizzonti section of this year’s Venice Film Festival, is set entirely in Budapest, and it’s a cinematic object hard to label. Perhaps the best way to approach it would be to bill it as a drama in which social and political themes take centerstage, while also being characterized by distinct coming-of-age themes.
It’s summer, and looming just around the corner is matura—finals season for senior high school students and a common rite of passage in many European countries. Abel (a convincingly distraught Gáspár Adonyi-Walsh) is struggling to focus on his studies, not least because he is coming to the realization that he is desperately in love with his best friend Janka (Lilla Kizlinger). Janka is a studious girl, but she seems overly fascinated by their liberal history teacher, a married man in his thirties called Jakab (András Rusznák). To close the loop, Jakab, for his part, has also had a previous altercation with Abel’s conservative father, György (István Znamenák). The main turning point takes place when Abel shows up at his history exam wearing a nationality pin on his jacket. Apparently, donning it is often taken as a sign of allegiance to Fidesz, the extreme right party led by Hungary’s current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. When Abel fails the exam, his father thinks his pin has something to do with it and so accuses Jakab of bias. The whole thing gradually develops into a media scandal that takes the nation by storm, bringing everyone’s stress levels to the roof.
Cinematographer Kristóf Becsey’s hand-held camera is an effective choice here. Though initially the result of the film’s limited budget, Reisz and Becsey make a virtue out of necessity. Especially in the most agitated scenes, the camera moves fast from one character to another, simulating the sensation of standing in front of them and feeling like powerless witnesses. Occasionally, the camera’s controlled shakiness enhances the characters’ state of distress – this is particularly visible, for example, when it focuses on Abel for a few minutes, while he is silently sitting in front of the examiners and trying to recollect his thoughts before starting his speech on Julius Caesar. In an attempt to reassure him, the teachers keep on talking to him, asking him to calm down but making him even more nervous in the process. It’s a type of embarrassment many of us have experienced at least once in our lifetime, and here it’s rendered skilfully.
The presence of the score, courtesy of András Kálmán and the director himself, is subtle, if barely perceivable. Meanwhile, the dialogue is straightforward and rich in realism. The scene where György visits his doctor for a medical check is a good example of the director and screenwriter Éva Schulze’s finely tuned writing: the pair share a similar political orientation and talk openly as two conservatives would do in private, lingering between frustration and resignation. It’s the type of conversation that one could hear by eavesdropping on some old men in a cafe or while sitting at the barber shop before having your haircut done.
The performances are also spot on. The dry acting of Walsh Gáspár, Rusznák, and Znamenák builds up tension in an organic fashion, which ultimately erupts over the last third and during the film’s two climaxes. The scenes in question depict György confronting Jakab, and the father trying to reconcile with his son. The latter in particular makes us realize how prejudice and ideology may open wounds impossible to heal and trigger downward spirals, leaving us without winners or losers.
Moreover, Reisz strikes a close-to-perfect balance between silent sequences and verbose scenes, giving the audience enough time to stop and think, but also to develop a genuine empathic bond with all the characters. The contrast between deafening silences and loud arguments can also be considered a clear metaphor for the two majority positions held by the society Reisz depicts on screen. In detail, it says much about the overwhelming feeling of oppression that impedes constructive dialogue, encourages arguments, and annihilates hope, forcing people to wait for societal change in silence. It is a permanent condition surely welcomed by the ruling classes, as it is ideal to maintain the status quo and let them work on their political agenda undisturbed.
Reisz strikes a close-to-perfect balance between silent sequences and verbose scenes, giving the audience enough time to stop and think, but also to develop a genuine empathic bond with all the characters.
On the whole, Reisz’s no-frills approach—typical of documentary cinema —proves rewarding, and the best fit for the tale he wishes to tell. It allows us to wear the shoes of all his characters, making them harder and harder to judge.
In the end, there is no pretense of ‘usefulness,’ no call to action, no moral message behind this film. However, there is Reisz’s great awareness of what is going on in the streets and within common people’s house walls. There is also the pristine realization that youth often feels trapped and indifferent, and that is not just an issue of Hungarian interest. During the latest Italian elections held in September 2022, for example, a worrying 42.7% of people aged 18-34 did not cast their vote. For this reason, Reisz’s picture has the potential to gather a wide pan-European audience, one that is heavily concerned about the future or simply doesn’t see one.