NOTE: This review is of a Region 0, PAL-formatted DVD. Please be sure you have the equipment to play this disc before seeking it out for purchase.
The 1984 Hungarian movie Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek) is a deeply personal film about one girl's return to a home country that she barely remembers. Set in Budapest in the late 1940s, the movie is the story of Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi), a teenaged girl who had been living in Soviet exile with her mother and father. Following the death of both parents, Juli has been retrieved by friends of the family. Back in Budapest, she lives with Magda (Anna Polony) and Magda's parents. It's a warm environment to begin with. Magda owes a debt to Juli's mother, her friend at one time, and the girl quickly bonds with the man that she will call Grandfather (Pál Zolnay). It's a situation, however, that was not built to last.
Magda soon begins to rise within the ranks of the Communist government, despite some questionable deeds in her past. There are implications that maybe she did some wrong in order to survive, and her joining the ruling class is not something her father can abide by. These are all things Juli is not able to understand, and no one will explain the circumstances to her, thus reinforcing her status as an outsider. As her foster mother embraces the Party line, so too does Juli feel the grip of authority tightening on her life. Though she doesn't realize it, the teen is in mourning, often daydreaming about her parents and regularly seeking solace at the cinema. She gets a boyfriend, and also begins to look up to her "uncle" Janos (Jan Nowicki). Janos was once a political dissident alongside Magda, and he still bucks the system, preferring practicality to dogma. Juli will eventually seek his help to escape Magda's home, but he will prove unable to avoid the woman's scorn himself.
Diary for My Children is part memoir, part fiction. Some of the events of the script mirror the youth of its writer/director, Márta Mészáros. The film, shot in black-and-white, has the air of memory. It is hazy at times, filled with strange gaps, and there are even pauses where the movie feels like it's giving Juli time to gather her thoughts, as if the next moment is one she is unsure of. It has a strange effect on the viewer, though I am not sure always that which is intended. At times, this air of history also feels like klutzy editing, like a scene is maybe lingering too long, someone has forgotten to make a trim.
This criticism gets to the heart of the problem I had with Diary for My Children. It's kind of a "neither nor" film, always suck between and never quite coming into its own. The root of this, for me, is its lead subject. Juli is an interesting character, as well as a frustrating one. She knows that she wants a change, but she lacks the self-awareness to know why or even what. She also is young and selfish and so not aware of how it might affect others. This can make her frustrating to watch. I wanted to sympathize with her more, particularly as one's loyalty to other characters shifts (Magda eventually becomes the beast Juli intuitively knows her to be, Grandfather goes from being a sickly phantom to a deep, caring man), but I found myself wanting to give her a good smack more often than not. This is fine in a story about a troubled adolescence. Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows can be a bit of a pill, too. What separates Truffaut's youthful avatar from Mészáros' stand-in, however, is that his liberation is one he earns and is thus satisfying. He is transformed. I never got the sense that Juli is changing.
Diary for My Children comes across as a film quietly observed, but also one overly reserved. Mészáros loads the film with a melancholy fog that ends up distancing the viewer. Like a real fog, it obscures the end goal, and the result is a movie that is underpaced and meandering. The air never clears enough so I could become fully connected to Juli or anyone else. It makes for a long journey, and by the time I got to where everything was going, I was no longer sure that I wanted to be there.
Second Run Features presents Diary for My Children in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with an anamorphic transfer geared for widescreen TVs. The black-and-white image is clean, with only the occasional spotting or scratches. The resolution tends to be soft, with some haloing and jagged edges. This could be a result of the PAL conversion, and is not extreme. Most of the time, I barely noticed.
The Hungarian soundtrack is mixed in stereo, and the packaging boasts that it is "restored." I am not sure what that means, maybe the original audio elements weren't in the best of shape. The DVD mix sounds hollow and distant, distorting the vocal tones and making for silences that aren't pure. I wouldn't really call it a hiss...it's just not silence. It's difficult to say if this is a fault of the DVD production or has been the way the movie has sounded since the beginning.
The optional English subtitles are very good, easy to read and well written.
Diary for My Children comes in a clear plastic case, with a 16-page booklet featuring liner notes, photos, and credits, as well as a separate Second Run Features catalogue.
The only extra on the disc itself is a 25-minute interview with the film's author, Márta Mészáros, in which she talks about some of her history, both personal and professional, and how it lead to this film.
Rent It. Diary for My Children is film that has solid aspirations but never finds a suitable tone. Márta Mészáros tells the semi-autobiographical story of a teenager in 1940s Budapest who is recovering from the loss of her parents while living under the increasingly oppressive post-War Communist rule. The writer/director tries to replicate the feeling of memory, peering back at the events from a distance, but the result distances the viewer from the film as much as its maker is distanced from her past--which I doubt is what she was going for. I wanted to be invested more in Juli's story, but ended up growing bored.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.