In a time of revolution, in a family torn by tradition one man was consumed by love.
Running at a full three hours, Sunshine was the longest film at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival. Epic in scope, the film follows a family of Hungarian Jews through 70 years of political history, and the various regimes that took over and ultimately abused their people. Ralph Fiennes plays three roles, that of grandfather, son, and grandson as the years sweep by, managing to carry the differences between the men without a hint of strangeness. This deep and moving film has themes and sub-themes to spare, and is an epic drama worthy of the respect it has earned, with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, and a slew of other awards.
Facts of the Case
The Sonnenschein family name means "Sunshine," and from the late 1800s made their fortune from a tonic elixir called "A Taste of Sunshine." But Ignatz decides not to follow in his father Emmanuel's footsteps, preferring a career in the law. Even back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, there were limitations in the roles in society Jews could participate within, and when Ignatz gets a chance to sit on the Central Court as a Justice, he is asked to change his name to "something more Hungarian." The changing of the family name to "Sors" is the first futile gesture to assimilation, because the records still show the family is of Jewish origin. Ignatz lives for the Empire, and is known as a fair and incorruptible judge. His brother Gustave prefers the egalitarianism he sees in communism, where he believes he will find people treated with justice and equality. For a time the Communists take over, and he becomes part of the government. But that flirtation with Marxism doesn't last long, and the fascists take over, leaving Gustave in exile. Adam Sors, son of Ignatz, has risen to become one of the greatest fencers in Hungary, and as a means of competing at the highest level, converts to Roman Catholicism. Things won't be well for the rest of the Sors family for long; the close ties of the Hungarian government to the Nazis has begun the process of separating Jews from mainstream society. Adam believes himself immune to the rampant anti-Semitism, since his status as national fencing champion and Hungarian military officer, not to mention his religious conversion, all make him exempt from the laws against Jews. That proves to be a false hope, as the family is rounded up and mostly sent to concentration camps. Ivan, son of Adam, is one of those who survives, and sees the Communists as those who have rescued Hungary from the Nazis, and the nation's greatest hope.
A recital of the story is not really possible with such a wide-ranging and epic film. Instead, there are themes that run throughout the film that are better able to be discussed. One of those themes is the use of power; whether the state calls itself "fascist" or "communist," or "provisional government," the difference in personal freedom for the average citizen doesn't change. Of course anti-Semitism is a rampant theme; it boggles the mind that someone can change their name, convert to another religion, be a national hero, and still get labeled as a Jew and hit with deadly discrimination. The Jews who did not try to assimilate receive the same brutal treatment, reflecting a theme in the film that trying to assimilate isn't worth the effort; being yourself is more important. It still mystifies me at times that anti-Semitism exists; from the pogroms in the Middle Ages to the Holocaust this century, some people have always looked at this group of people with suspicion and hatred. Films like this bring it home, perhaps even better than the films set entirely within the Holocaust. The scene in which a radio announcer dispassionately reads the limitations on freedoms for Jews and what constitutes a Jew is perhaps more horrifying and sobering than a concentration camp scene would have been.
I'll leave the discussion of themes there, though a scholarly look at the film and its underlying subtexts could take several pages. Besides all its sobering and thoughtful elements, Sunshine is an often warm film about family. Performances are superb; Jennifer Ehle and Rosemary Harris combine to play the young and old Valerie, who remains an anchor of the family and of the film. But of course this is really a Ralph Fiennes work; he pulls off the monumental task of playing three roles and making them all different people. Without extensive makeup or prosthetics he becomes each of the three men to such a degree that it is easy to forget the same man is in all those parts. None of these parts are one-dimensional; each of them has the capacity for greatness or pettiness, good or evil. Fiennes is one of the top flight of actors today who is overshadowed by his penchant (or sole opportunities as the case may be) for playing in small films. He is ready for the big time.
Istvan Szabo's brilliant direction keeps the film on track through its admittedly long three hour running time. For three generations of the Sors family, basically an hour is given to each. There are times in which I thought the pace should quicken; to try for a shorter length. Other times I wanted to dwell longer where we were, and thought perhaps the film needed to be even longer. Such an epic scope is hard to pin down, and since I could make the case for making it longer (perhaps a mini-series?) or shorter, perhaps Szabo found the right medium.
Paramount's DVD presentation has few flaws from a technical standpoint. The picture is usually quite sharp and clear, and there is a dearth of artifacts or other blemishes to mar the image. Colors are quite warm, especially the sunny outdoor scenes, and can give way to the bluish tint in the winter scenes during WWII. Other than a hint of grain at times, and a bit of softness in a few scenes, there are no flaws worth mentioning. A fine effort for a fine film. The sound is a bit better than the typical drama treatment, with fairly frequent use of surrounds for ambient sound effects. Maurice Jarre's emotional and sometimes elegiac musical score comes through beautifully from all sides, and dialogue is clear. If I had to find a flaw it would be in the bass response, which is a little low for a Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, there is zero extra content on the DVD, not so much as a trailer. The running time is part of the reason for this state of affairs, but I understand other regions have released the title with interviews and behind the scenes footage.
Set aside an evening for a thoughtful, powerful drama, and Sunshine will not disappoint.
Guilty are all those in power who would let self-interest, greed, and hate take precedence over what is truly best for the people. The battle between greed and altruism is one we fight everyday as a species, and only when our nobler sides finally win will we have no more stories like this to tell.
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