An American Rhapsody

on August 10, 2001 by Tricia Deering
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Stalin-stained Hungary forces a family to flee the borders under cloak of night, barbed wire, and machine guns looming from towers above. Out of necessity and Iron Curtain bureaucracy, left behind is baby Zsuzsa--for eight years. Awaiting the family on the shores of America is a new life in 1950s Wonder Bread suburbia.

This is a tender tale of risk and love, told through the eyes of 15-year-old Zsuzsa (Scarlett Johansson), who, after being reunited with her family and living in the U.S. for several years, journeys back to Hungary to quell her sense of displacement in America. After learning of the cruelty inflicted upon her family in totalitarian Hungary and witnessing the harsh reality of the communist regime, she returns to embrace the American life her mother offers her--a life for which she had risked everything.

The opening footage of Soviet-dominated Hungary is bone-chilling, and provides a historical framework and compelling explanation for why the family escapes. The film takes a subject most Americans may have only heard about through high school history courses and successfully weaves a dramatic tale, spiced with a dash of humility and humor. The strength of the actors believably illustrates the plight of an emigré family freed from the bonds of the Soviet domain.

Nastassja Kinski gives a graceful performance as Margit Szándor, a cultured European who adjusts to the kitsch-laden New World and neighbors to whom all of Central Europe is Czechoslovakia. The chemistry between her and Scarlett Johansson will be appreciated by all who have known the strife between a mother and teenage daughter.

Through the eyes of the lovable young Zsuzsa (Kelly Endrész Bálanki), we experience the first-time joy of bananas (Cuba couldn't provide enough bananas for all of communist Europe), Elvis and pink bubblegum.

The Hungarian folk music complements well, especially the mellifluous and haunting voice of Martya Sebestyen (known for the "English Patient" soundtrack), and the tweedle-dee-dee '50s rock 'n' roll offers levity as our little heroine discovers America.

"American Rhapsody" is based on the personal story of Hungarian-American director-writer Eva Gardos, and perhaps one of the most moving moments in the film is the last: a photograph of the triumphant Gardos' family upon the arrival of their daughter to the New World.

This is a wonderful tale to be enjoyed by all ages--no gratuitous sex or violence, just a well-penned script, beautiful cinematography of romantic Hungary and quirky America, and actors who carry the story to fruition, giving us a few laughs and tears along the way. Starring Nastassja Kinski, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Goldwyn, Kelly Endrész Bálanki, Agi Bánfalvy, Zsuzsa Czinkócyi, Balásy Galkó and Zoltán Seress. Written by Eva Gardos. Produced by Jay Firestone, Adam Haight and Andrew G. Vajna. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Running time: 106 min

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