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Oscar-nominated 'On Body and Soul' wonders if love in a dream can survive the real world

Oscar-nominated 'On Body and Soul' wonders if love in a dream can survive the real world
Geza Morcsanyi and Alexandria Borbely star in "On Body and Soul," which is nominated for an Oscar for foreign language picture. (Netflix)

Ildiko Enyedi's inner voice had wavered. She had lost herself. After finding early success, the Hungarian director, a romantic with a sly streak, had not released a film in 18 years, a fallow stretch she once likened to a laid-off steelworker having nothing to hammer or shape.

"Filmmaking is like a dance with the world," she said. "You have to feel the world around you, as if a partner. You can surprise the partner, but still you need a synchronicity, and somehow it felt I didn't have it then. Writing scripts, fighting for financing. Failing. Trying again for financing and failing, and then sitting down again, and writing a new one."

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She paused.

"My center of gravity had moved."

Enyedi's "On Body and Soul," nominated for an Academy Award for foreign language film, is the imaginative return of a director who celebrates our flaws — "life is richer than perfection" — and our capacity to heal one another. The film, which takes place in a slaughterhouse and a winter forest, is the tale of two lovers who meet in a shared dream they try to carry back to the waking world. It is at once magical and sobering, a meditation on our hushed whims and desires, and the slights and insecurities we daily endure.

"It has interested me always is to understand the human condition, not connected to one place or moment but to look at 'What the hell is this?'" said Enyedi, whose film is streaming on Netflix. "It's a burning question for me. Again and again, I am shocked and humbled by what people are capable of in cruelty and in compassion. We have all this inside us."

The film centers on Endre (Geza Morcsanyi), financial manager of the slaughterhouse, and Maria (Alexandra Borbely), a quality control inspector. Endre has a withered arm; Maria is mildly autistic. They pass yet rarely speak. But in the dream world of the forest, they are two deer in love. This subconscious, mystical escapism is balanced by the scoured, clinical precision on the abattoir's killing floors. Amid industrial death and the mundane duties of work life, the couple's imperfections and longings spin like whispers, reflecting passions and weaknesses we all carry.

"My intention," said Enyedi, the only woman director nominated in the foreign category, "was to show that, even if it's not perfect — because we are hunting something always perfect and if it's not then we throw it away. But it's not bad if it's not perfect. They continue to be difficult people. They continue to struggle with a lot, but they are not anymore alone and it's worth a fight to cherish it."

Enyedi, 62, is a small woman with a ponytail, dark-rimmed glasses and a backpack. The other day she traveled to the Netflix offices on Sunset Boulevard and found herself in the "Star Trek" room, which, given her aesthetic, presented an irony that amused her. She spoke in soft, concise sentences, as if one had stumbled upon the musings of an intellectual in an old Budapest café. There is no pretension about her, but when a strong idea strikes, she punches the air with a petite fist and smiles. When asked if she was a romantic, she replied: "Oh, yes, wildly."

Her debut film "My Twentieth Century" (1989) won the Camera d'Or at Cannes. The tale of twin orphans who went separate ways — one a seductress, the other a revolutionary — the movie is a provocative and humorous exploration of modern civilization. Other films, including "Simon, the Magician" followed and then Enyedi disappeared from the cinema, writing un-produced scripts, raising two children and teaching at the Film School in Budapest. She eventually signed on with HBO Europe for the Hungarian remake of "In Treatment," a series about a therapist and his patients.

"Somehow that healed me," said Enyedi, who later received funding for "On Body and Soul," which last year won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi, photographed Feb. 6 in Los Angeles, is nominated for a foreign language film Oscar for "On Body and Soul," her first film in 18 years.
Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi, photographed Feb. 6 in Los Angeles, is nominated for a foreign language film Oscar for "On Body and Soul," her first film in 18 years. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The film is a more fable-like take on post-communist Eastern Europe than the social-realism of other directors, notably Romanians Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu. Much of their work is an unflinching examination of the failed communist state and the legacy of corruption and disillusionment it stamped on younger generations. There is a hint of that in "On Body and Soul," but Enyedi's playful eye is less concerned with the grit of political sins and social consequences than with timeless elements of personal renewal.

"I adore their films," she said of her Romanian counterparts, "but I am more distant from the moment in which we live. My burning questions are different."

The pulses and pressures of life — gadgets, screens and virtual worlds — have turned us inward but often not introspective. The clamor of populists and nationalists have not soothed or reassured, and many, including Enyedi, are seeking meaning in things more analog. The dream sequences in "On Body and Soul" ring with a crisp purity — snow, a stream, a foggy thicket — that echo the naturalist writings of Henry David Thoreau.

"Now just a walk in the woods becomes treasured," she said. "I have children ages 22 and 26. I see in their generation a reevaluation of values. In Budapest there are cafes and gatherings, where 200 people sit together and play board games. I see the signs of a big breakthrough on life's priorities. There is this puppet theater of politics, but fewer and fewer people are listening to it."

Such sentiments have influenced her art. She has long been concerned with the philosophies, idiosyncrasies and the folly of who we are and how we live, but these days she is less a filmmaker speaking directly to the audience than a director intent on letting the seams in her work vanish.

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"My first film was mosaic-like. I wanted to show as many colors as possible," she said. "But in 'Body and Soul' my main purpose was to make a distillation of many thoughts and feelings and be as simple and transparent as possible and step back as an auteur and let the film breath and connect with the audience. To put all the work in it and make it disappear."

Much credit goes to her cinematographer, Mate Herbai, who caught a series of quiet, telling moments, including breadcrumbs being brushed from a table, that lasted a few seconds but defined the evolving relationship between Endre ( Morcsanyi's first film-acting role) and Maria (Borbely won best actress for at the European Film Awards for her performance). Herbai, she said, waited for the light to shift, to see the scene from a different vantage point.

"It's a tiny thing but the whole film is full of these tiny things," said Enyedi. "He [Herbai] wasn't just thinking in a visual style. He was thinking about the core, the essence of the moment we were shooting. It is so rare to know the hidden heart of a scene."

"On Body and Soul," like many foreign language films, was relegated to the art house genre, a description that suggests it may be too peculiar and elusive for mass appeal. Before its Academy Award nomination, the film did not have a theatrical opening in the U.S. Netflix, which began streaming it this month, making it available to millions of subscribers, gave it a limited in New York and Los Angeles, where it is playing this week at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. Enyedi is happy for that but, with a petite fist striking the air, insists that small films from far-away places have more resonance than theatrical distributors think.

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"My film is concrete proof that a low key, tender, very simple film can reach out to so many audiences. Everywhere I go, from Korea to Norway, it is working on people directly. It shows that what distributors say about what audiences need is simply not true. People are much more sensitive, patient and open."

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

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