In dreams begin responsibility, the poet W.B. Yeats famously said, but could romance begin there as well?
Hungary’s dazzling “On Body and Soul,” one of the year’s most justifiably celebrated foreign-language films, takes that delicate concept and uses it to cast a singularly intoxicating spell.
Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, one of this year’s five foreign-language Oscar finalists, nominated for four European film awards (star Alexandra Borbély won for lead actress), this is the most quietly mind-expanding, out-of-the-ordinary romance to appear in quite some time.
Like the best of dreams, familiar yet wondrously different, “On Body and Soul” adroitly mixes recognizable cinematic tropes with extraordinary ideas that are very much the filmmaker’s own.
That writer/director is Ildikó Enyedi, who made a memorable debut with 1989’s “My Twentieth Century,” which took home the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Her subsequent work did not make as big an international splash, and in fact there’s an 18-year gap between Enyedi’s last dramatic film and this one.
What facilitated the director’s return to feature filmmaking was an idea brilliant in its simplicity, an idea that startlingly mixes the magical and the mundane in a way only the movies could do justice to.
It’s the magical we see first, as “On Body and Soul” opens not with its human characters but with a drop-dead gorgeous sequence superbly shot by cinematographer Máté Herbai. A magnificent stag and a self-possessed doe, alone in a stunning winter landscape of bare trees and snowy ground, stand together, their bodies touching, all but human in their palpable connection.
When we get to the real world, the film’s main setting, a big-city slaughterhouse, looks especially drab and mundane by comparison. And the cows, whose brutal end we are soon to witness, look at us with wary, pleading eyes, as if almost suspecting what is to come.
Looking over this with a dispassionate eye from his second-floor window is Endre (Géza Morcsányi), a lean, bearded individual with a withered arm. He is the slaughterhouse’s director, the man in charge of the organized carnage.
On this particular day Endre is looking at an unfamiliar face, trying to figure out who this timid, uncertain woman is. Mária (Borbély) is not an employee but the new government quality inspector, a preternaturally precise woman who turns out to have a fiendishly exact eye for the fat content of a side of beef.
There is a certain amount of attraction between these two, but both are introverted, even formal. Without any skill in small talk or socialization, nothing comes of this, with both Mária and Endre retreating to their individual dissociated lives. Until fate takes a hand.
The theft of, of all things, animal mating powder, leads to each of the slaughterhouse’s employees being questioned by an investigating psychologist who routinely asks them about their dreams.
Which is how Mária and Endre discover that they are both having the identical dream every night, both sharing the exact same images of stag and doe that began the film and that recur periodically from here on in.
As might be expected, Mária and Endre are equally flabbergasted by the discovery, uncertain where to take it but unwilling to just shrug it off and let it go.
What they come to decide, and how that delicately plays out, works up an unexpected amount of tension, an increasingly moving testimony to the power dreams have over us, like it or not.
Despite her absence from features (she has been working most recently on the Hungarian version of HBO’s “In Treatment”), filmmaker Enyedi is in complete control of the medium here, and her spare, unhurried work is a model of careful screenplay construction married to an out-of-the-ordinary imagination.
In this she is helped greatly by her actors. Just as “On Body and Soul” mixes dream and reality, so do her leads seamlessly mix the style of professional and amateur.
Borbély, the European Film Award winner, is a dazzling professional, able to create a convincingly vulnerable Mária who is achingly believable in both her daring and her limitations. Effectively playing against her is Morcsányi, who in real life is one of Hungary’s top publishers, someone who has worked with people like Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz. “His physical type made me think of Clint Eastwood in ‘Gran Torino,’” the director has said, and the comparison is apt.
Also doing remarkable work are those two deer. The magnificent male needed months of training and the director, quoted in the Hollywood Reporter, said “we framed the deer the same way we framed the human actors.” It works.
For lovers of the theatrical experience, the only sad note in all this is that in Los Angeles “On Body and Soul” is only available on Netflix, the first time in memory a foreign-language film of this quality has not had even a token moviehouse playdate. Finally, however, we’re grateful to have something so memorable to experience, no matter what screen it’s on.
‘On Body and Soul’
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Streaming on Netflix