Based on the international bestseller by Agota Kristof, “The Notebook” represented Hungary in the Academy Awards’ foreign-language film competition but failed to garner a nomination.
Director János Szász opens the film in 1944 amid World War II. As her husband heads to the battlefield, a mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) entrusts her prepubescent twins (Laszlo and Andras Gyemant) to the care of her estranged mom (Piroska Molnár) — better known in her Hungarian countryside town as “the witch.”
Grandma immediately consigns the twins to menial labor to earn their keep.
After being falsely accused and trounced for theft, the twins turn to self-flagellation and starvation. Perpetually stolid, they seem straight out of “Village of the Damned.” The only character with any trace of conscience and humanity is a Jewish shoemaker, who promptly meets with an untimely death.
Not one but two predators attempt to proposition the boys: one a Nazi officer, another a church assistant who happens to champion the Jewish shoemaker’s arrest.
This cautionary tale certainly has a chilling and timely message of how wars make monsters out of innocent people. But using reductive caricatures — complete with phlegmatic performances — to send that message is perhaps not the best way, because it turns something with modern-day implications into distant allegory.
MPAA rating: R for disturbing violence, sexual content, nudity and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles.