Sunset ***

A turbulent chapter in Hungarian history comes to life with gritty immediacy in the new period piece from the director of the Holocaust drama “Son of Saul.” The Oscar-winning filmmaker bites off more than he can chew in this ambitious but overlong portrait of early 20th century social tensions, but the immersive prowess on display is still something to behold.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

The hats are lined up to pleasing effect as Írisz Leiter walks into the store that bears her family name near the beginning of “Sunset,” an immersive arthouse thrill ride that puts you in the driver's seat for a tumultuous tour of 1913 Budapest. We're a trigger pull away from the outbreak of World War I, but you wouldn't know it from the sun-dappled streets and carnivalesque atmosphere.

The mood, however, is gloomier behind the doors of Leiter, as Írisz (Juli Jakab) is being interviewed for a post as a milliner. The young woman's training is well documented, her qualifications for the position beyond reproach, but when the manager takes a look at her last name, the applicant is swiftly whisked away to the office of Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), the upscale emporium's owner. Írisz has a doozy for the gruff, elegantly attired business man: The reason she shares the last name as his posh clothing store is that it once belonged to her late parents. You know, the ones who founded Leiter.

It's no longer theirs to own, Oszkár reminds Írisz shortly before he unceremoniously ushers her out. Unfortunately for the curt impresario, Írisz is as stubborn as she is driven. She also put all her eggs in this basket career-wise, so what's an orphan to do stranded in a big, hostile metropolis with her dream job just out of her reach? She walks around. A lot. And we are there for every step.

Welcome to the formally rigorous world of László Nemes, the Hungarian auteur behind the harrowing death camp chronicle “Son of Saul.” Like that gripping pressure cooker of a movie, the filmmaker opts for a gritty, handheld approach, keeping his 35 mm camera focused on his protagonist for nearly the entire duration. It's a bracing high-wire act, then and now, only this time Nemes has expanded “Saul's” boxy Academy ratio to a less claustrophobic 1.85 frame. More intriguing still, he amps up the logistics, opening up the extent of his narrative to incorporate an entire city. That's a sizable backdrop for a film that unfolds guerrilla-style.

Thus, in addition to being a portrait of a young woman with a front-row seat to history, “Sunset” is a snapshot of Europe on the eve of the Great War, with Budapest serving as a microcosm of the entire continent. The moneyed class is here portrayed as entitlement in decadence, their swanky dinners and picnics not quite stamping out the roiling tensions brewing just outside their front doors. “My Fair Lady” this ain't.


Nemes' commitment to his demanding mise en scene is quite admirable. He is intent on forcing viewers to experience the gradual deterioration of Írisz's surroundings through her deer-in-the-headlights bewilderment. There's no way he would have been able to pull it off without the invaluable aid of Mátyás Erdély's skillful camerawork or László Rajk's tactile production design. And in Jakab, Nemes has found an audience surrogate whose blank-slate mettle allows viewers to lose themselves in the period.

Írisz navigates this unfriendly landscape with trial-and-error determination, going as far as turning into a sleuth when she learns a family member whom she thought long dead might actually be behind attacks on the city's well-to-do. Once she makes that discovery, there's an air of inevitability to what follows, but one still feels as the turmoil is unfolding onscreen spontaneously.

If there's something that prevents “Sunset” from matching “Saul's” resonance, it's a running time that eventually makes viewers feel like they're running a 5K. A thoroughly absorbing ordeal, to be sure, but no less exhausting. The length ends up working against the movie, which starts sputtering near the two-hour mark. There's a thin line between staging violent chaos and losing narrative cohesion, and Nemes is not always able to straddle that line successfully. It might lessen the impact of his achievement, but it doesn't take away what he's pulled off here.

“Sunset” is the cinematic equivalent of that tough history class that required attention and extra study time, but looking back, one comes to appreciate later in life. It makes up in sheer chutzpah what it lacks in storytelling clarity.

Cron Job Starts