Tuesday 21 November 2017

Full throttle: "Strangled"

Strangled, the big winner at this year's Hungarian Film Awards, adopts an approach previously taken by the Korean film Memories of Murder, running its fingers over the scars of a true-life murder case to see what they might tell us about the country's cruel and unusual history. We open in the town of Martfű in the year 1957, with a pallid young man named Akos Rota (Gábor Jászberényi) being arrested and sentenced to death for the murder and posthumous rape of a shoe factory employee. The verdict is presented as a small triumph of Communist justice - everyone goes along with it, including the heartbroken defendant, who confesses seemingly to put an end to his sorry life. Even that pitiful wish is denied to him, however, after a brutal showerblock assault that sees his sentence commuted to 25 years' imprisonment, and seven years on from that - with Rota still safely locked away - the necrophilic murder spree picks up where the real killer left off.

It is, then, a matter of handling: we are invited to evaluate whether the veteran writer-director Árpád Sopsits has done a better job connecting the grim dots of this case than the Hungarian authorities did first time around. (You could see that local awards sweep as evidence of a country assuaging its own guilt in this matter.) Sensitive viewers should be warned that Sopsits is out to grab his audience by the throat: Strangled's first half will do absolutely nothing to reassure those viewers who'd had enough of seeing lifeless female flesh exposed two hours into the first series of True Detective. This is, in some respects, an exploitation thriller before it reconfigures itself into a serious miscarriage-of-justice movie, which possibly explains why it feels more intrinsically cinematic than the bulk of those tastefully televisual European crime dramas that have reached our screens in recent years.

The bluntness is, however, a front. The further we get into this case, the more we spy - and, I think, admire - Sopsits' detailed description of both the procedural fallout from the initial wrong conviction, and the personalities of those involved in setting it right: the boyish DA Szirmai (Péter Bárnai), who had the energy and determination to reopen the case and investigate for himself, and Bota (Zsolt Anger), the gruff, lived-in detective who proved too much the individual to completely toe the Party line - and thus exactly the man required to evade the prevailing groupthink around this case. Sopsits equally doesn't spare us anything in unpicking the killer's deeply tangled psychology, which extended to attacking his own wife so as to give himself an alibi, and visiting the patsy Rota in jail so as to mock his lack of freedom. Here, the film posits, is an evil sheltered by a system that maintained there could be no such thing as a serial murderer - or a wrongful verdict - in Communist Hungary. (See also: 1995's pretty good DTV thriller Citizen X, which depicted similar crimes in Soviet Russia.)

That this evil did profound, lasting damage to all those whose paths it crossed over the ten years it was left to run amok inevitably makes for a tough and troubling watch: several sequences are horrible bordering on problematic, here to remind us this is a story about a necrophiliac rapist at large. (Even the film's consensual sex scenes involve copious skirt-ripping, as if to demonstrate how those living under Communism even had to fight for their carnal pleasures.) Yet it's composed with low-lit style and increasingly weighty substance, its intelligence borne out at the last in the centring of one choice, especially pointed irony - mass-manufactured footwear turns out to be key - and Sopsits' skillful tying-up of loose ends, not least one previously straggly-seeming subplot involving the DA's subaqua hobby. It is, finally, far better handled than you might at first think: my suspicion is that the results may well constitute David Fincher's favourite foreign-language title of the year, for one.

Strangled is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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