The renaissance in today's Hungary

Special to The Times

The decline of the art-house theater has severely curtailed America's exposure to foreign films -- now limited largely to the occasional picture so prize-laden or distinctive that it breaks through. Romania's current critical darling, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," is a prime example. But the Eastern European renaissance is not just confined to that country, as evidenced by a new program kicking off today at Laemmle's Grande 4-Plex that showcases four films from Hungary in exclusive, one-week engagements.

Of the films, Csaba Bollok's "Iska's Journey" (opening Feb. 15) is the standout, unfolding with the utmost confidence and simplicity -- to devastating effect. Maria Varga stars as an irresistible, resilient ragamuffin scavenging for scrap metal in an impoverished Romanian mining town, exactly as she was when Bollok discovered her. He elicits from Varga a breathtaking portrayal, natural and spontaneous; Iska's flight from a brutal, alcoholic family is increasingly harrowing, a shattering comment on the terrible vulnerability of children making their way on their own in the world.

Hiding behind the silly title "Men in the Nude" (opening Feb. 22) is Karoly Esztergalyos' engrossing study of a 49-year-old writer (Laszlo Galffi), long married to a stage actress (Eva Kerekes), who is ensnared by a young hustler (David Szabo). An experienced man would instantly see that the kid is bad news, but the writer is soon past caring, not only because of the sex but because he sees in the affair fodder for a new novel. The result is a sophisticated cautionary tale on the dangers of placing more importance on art than life.

Pal Sandor's sentimental comedy "Noah's Ark" (opening Feb. 29) doesn't travel quite so well; it's about how the tenants in a Budapest apartment house pull together to support a neighbor competing for the title of best grandfather in a national TV contest.

"Just Sex and Nothing Else," the film that opens the series, has a far more universal appeal. The title comes from an ad that an attractive theater dramaturge (Judit Schell) specifies on an Internet dating service. Unlucky in love, she now wants simply to become pregnant. She's so self-absorbed, though, that she is blind to the fact that the hunky actor ("Kontroll's" Sandor Csanyi) cast as Valmont in a production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" has fallen in love with her.

Krisztina Goda's film could just as easily have been made in Hollywood and set in Manhattan -- and with luck, it will connect with moviegoers in the same way as quality films made here at home.

"Just Sex and Nothing Else." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In Hungarian with English subtitles. "Iska's Journey." MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In Hungarian with English subtitles. "Men in the Nude." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In Hungarian with English subtitles. "Noah's Ark." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In Hungarian with English subtitles. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grand 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa, downtown, (213) 617-0268.

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