Written and directed by Nimród Antal
Produced by Tamás Hutlassa and Nimród Antal
Starring Sandor Csanyi, Zoltan Mucsi, Csaba Pindroch, Zsolt Nagy and Eszter Balla
(out of four)
Bulcsu hasn’t been above ground for some time. While the other ticket control personnel on the Budapest subway system suffer through the same awkward and dismal job, at least they take the towering escalator up to daylight at the end of their shifts. The camera of “Kontroll,” like its hero, never sees above the first halves of those escalators that seem to lead to a better, less distorted life.
Nimród Antal’s brilliant film takes place entirely in a dank, surreal underworld of chiaroscuro florescent lighting, uninviting tunnels, grimy platforms, rats and confused and angry people. In his debut feature, Antal has crafted a pitch-black comedy, a romance, a thriller and an existential, noir examination of life’s purpose. And he pulls it all off better than most filmmakers could manage with only one of those genres.
Sandor Csanyi plays the troubled and mysterious hero, who works with the misfit division of inept and unkempt controllers. Bulcsu’s clumsy team includes a narcoleptic who is even more out of it than you’d expect a narcoleptic to be, a weary control veteran who can’t stop smoking and a twitchy rookie. They aren’t as motivated as their cocky rival unit, whose members look slick with their new uniform leather jackets and make the boss much happier when they meet to discuss whether or not they’ve reached the quota of people without tickets on whom they have to write violations.
It isn’t hard to see why they don’t easily meet their quota when the film shows the dysfunctional passengers who find offense and despair when the officers try to do their jobs. Since the passengers don’t encounter controllers all that often—and since the trains are overcrowded, making escape easier—many of them don’t buy tickets. Not only that, but they take offense when Bulcsu and his colleagues have the nerve to ask them for their ticket. Sometimes this results in nonsensical attempts at avoidance, other times in violence or wild pursuits.
The messy fights and short and desperate chases provide outlets for exciting and skillfully directed action, but have a deeper significance. The controllers don’t really care whether or not these people have tickets, and their intense struggle isn’t to accomplish anything profound, but to meet a bureaucratic quota. They’re not making the world—or the subway—a better place, they’re just keeping their job so that more people can verbally and physically assault them.
Bulcsu, whose past life is a mystery, has chosen to live in this nightmare rather than trying to change his life or the world. The film plays like a bad dream as different plot elements appear and fade, revealing different aspects of the subway life. The darkest element comes in the form of a hooded killer who pushes people in front of the trains. Like the many suicides, this is inconvenient to the controllers because it ruins the train schedules, but it's also sinister because the killer seems to have as much knowledge of the subway’s insidious tunnels and paths as Bulcsu does.
The Budapest subway’s architecture certainly lends itself to expressionistic horror pieces. The film was shot at night during the subway’s off hours, and a manager awkwardly delivers a prewritten statement about how he decided to let the film be shot there because it was obviously symbolic and not representative of the actual subway. The cinematography by Gyula Pados brings out the large arches, dark tunnels and depressing lights. And when the overpowering daylight sneaks through from above, it’s as daunting as it is hopeful. Antal proves himself capable of directing everything from tense action to wild comedy, and pulls it all together in a great looking film that never looks cheap or breaks with its creepy atmosphere.
While he has friends who would be willing to help him if he sought it, the warmest hope in Bulcsu’s life comes in the form of a mysterious cute young woman in a bear suit who, of course, has no ticket, and whom Bulcsu immediately recognizes as the closest he’s come to sunlight. But at the moment, he appears too trapped in the underground to find a way out.
And “Kontroll” doesn’t let the audience escape its combination of humor and dark dramatic intrigue as it gracefully travels through the underworld of a city. Why doesn’t Bulcsu ever come up to the sunlight? What was his life like before he went underground? Why has there been a recent rise in suicidal passengers jumping in front of trains? Is this the real underground, or, as the bureaucrat in the beginning tells us, an allegory? Whatever it is, Bulcsu has to let himself find the means to escape.