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. "On Body and Soul"

This extraordinarily symbolic romance begins and ends like no other I've ever seen, thanks to the imagination of Hungarian writer/director Ildiką Enyedi. The film is her country's entry for the 2018 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language film. And in an arthouse manner of bringing two people together, it's in a class of it's own.

My claim begins to gain traction as early as the opening scene. We're in a cool forest glade. We see two deer, one a massively-pointed buck; the other a dainty doe. What seems to be a courtship game ensues. Is she ready for him? Is he interested? We watch and try to interpret their moves. All we know for sure is that nothing happens between them. Read into the encounter what you will.

In the human world, the setting is starkly different, though one could argue that a slaughterhouse relates to what we've seen so far, in that four-legged animals are involved. Slender, hardedged Endre (Geza Morcsanyi}, whose face is a road map of harsh experience, manages the business. Enyedi's roving camera documents how the beef we love is mercilessly prepared for market. Under the craggy-faced boss, specialists at various jobs do their long-repeated work of killing, bleeding, slicing and hanging carcuses..

The camera roves through the establishment, showing us that the staff also includes specialist in all aspects of running a business, with typical relationships and gossip always in the air. The sample slaughter is real and shown in agonizing detail that's difficult to watch. Enyedi wants us to know and feel something about the cold, universal details behind those steaks we love. Shoppers are likely to have this picture etched in mind when they buy one in the market.

One day a new hygiene inspector appears. Maria (Czechoslovakian Alexandra Borbely) is a comely if distant woman. Her beauty enlivens the gossip machine but her anti-social manner prevents a friendship to develop. What is really profound shyness comes off as cold and distant. At mealtime she seeks a table of her own, speaks only when spoken to; she's aloof as a bird and soon dispels any trace of sympathetic understanding. When she perforns her duties she sticks rating tabs on the carcasses of the company's product, labeling the carcasses "B" grade.

Endre goes ballistic and demands her immediate presence in his office to tell him the reason. She has a "highly developed eye for microscopic differences" she avers, and the hides are centimeters too, well... beefy. Thus Maria meets the boss and the boss isn't too pleased. What he doesn't know yet is that this strange woman has made an internal impression on him. It surfaces later, when he suddenly notices her standing outside studying him through an upper level office window. Emotion, and the narrative, gets interesting.

For her part she's awakening to something entirely new and must be dealt with. It's something not technical nor exacting; a change in her world and something insistent within. Is this leading to a possible end to her lonely life? Are these two people fated for the same as their forest prototypes, which Enyedi harks back to every so often?

It's all a bit long in the telling, or may just feel that way, but very involving for romantics and arthouse types despite or because of its air of restraint, emptiness and hope, not to say originality.

"On Body and Soul" failed to take the Best Foreign Language Film award for 2017, losing it to "A Fantastic Woman." (Less worthy in my book).

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  


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