cast: Orsi Toth, Eszter Wierdl, Zsolt Trill, and Tama Kobor
director: Kornél Mundruczó
82 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Paul Higson
Someone must have launched a competition under the title ‘how Hungarian are you?’ and this was the result. The critics got a little excitable about Johanna on the festival circuit. I can only assume they had been forced to watch a series of documentaries about autopsies on children if this could bring a smile to their maws. Béla Tarr (director of Werckmeister Harmonies) sees himself as the Hungarian Lars Von Trier, producing this grimy medical melodrama, which opens on an emergency exercise. One of the volunteers is Johanna (Orsi Toth) a prostitute who has offered up her streetwalking time in order to sneak into the depository. She slips down a staircase while making an exit with the drugs and a doctor (Zsolt Trill) with a good heart (he will swear blind it has nothing to do with any trouser commotions) persuades the hospital to take her on staff as a nurse. He will try and cure her with the environment, occupying the girl in the service unto others, theoretically keeping her too busy to indulge in drugs and selling her body. Amnesia from the concussion helps towards this end but doesn’t answer the confusion of emotions and amorous proclivities she carries with her. The result is an urge to stride the elderly patients and give them what she can only give explanation to as a healing fuck. All this is played out to an operatic score, Johanna’s voice provided by Eszter Wierdl and the doctor by Tama Kobor. The music and vocals are perfectly good, but this being opera it means that there is repetition in the telling and short order film language is the first casualty. Plot points that could be accounted for in seconds are strung out for much longer as the chorus do their thing and do and sing that thing again and again. You feel like poking it with a stick, if only could find a stick dirty enough.
The hospital is a windowless underworld that resembles a network of cellars you might find under the promenade of a seafront town. It is an unimaginative other place, soiled in bloody browns, ruddy and muddy, and with its denizens occasionally in the nuddie. The specifically grim enclosed environments are banjaxed from the outset by an opening exterior shot that shows a lively, and seemingly very normal, real city al fresco. The dialogue takes its time in making a point. On one of the more distinctive numbers you realise late that, as she informs us, this is a lullaby, hence the weird and pleasant lilt to the tune. A lot of the dialogue is risible. “You sleep with patients desperate for manna under the cover of night,” accuses the doctor. Patients imperil themselves under the belief that ordinary medicine is futile and a free trick from Johanna the only cure. The staff decide they must rid the hospital of Johanna, finally, sacrificially. The patients rebel and protect her. No memory, only instinct and good will driving her, Johanna is at the mercy of both groups, frightened she is pushed deeper into the hospital. “Let’s run to the urology department,” sing the protector patients, and I ask, is someone taking the piss? “Every corridor is a wasteland,” sings the doctor, someone’s done an idiot of a job on the subtitles, I vibrato back. The staff retake the doomed girl, luring her in and killing her. It is a re-telling of the trial of Joan of Arc and the approach may be deemed strange for film but in modern opera stranger is seen on the boards. Quirky is not enough, not nearly enough. One day, buy the soundtrack, but forget the film.