Love is such a quiet, private film, you’d never guess it was a political statement — and a dangerous one at that. So dangerous that the Hungarian government would not allow the director, Károly Makk, to make it for eight years. And it would be two years after it won the Jury Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival before Hungarian audiences would be allowed to see it.
The story is deceptively simple. Luca’s husband Janos is in prison, one of the thousands of political prisoners in Stalinist Hungary. We do not know his crime and nor does she; we do not learn until the end of the film that he is alive. In the meantime, Luca must somehow get through the days without him.
Janos’s ninety-six-year-old mother does not know her son is in prison. Bedridden, she awaits the daily visit of her daughter-in-law, who conspires with the old woman’s housekeeper to make her believe that Janos is in America making a film. Luca goes so far as to invent letters purporting to be from Janos, which the housekeeper dutifully fetches from the mailbox to keep up the ruse.
Janos’s mother appears to go along with the charade. Born in Vienna, she harbors the lost culture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its refined tastes and romantic illusions. She is removed from the harsh realities of life in postwar Hungary, and yet we sense that she knows more than she chooses to reveal.
In the film, we see flashbacks to the war in which her older son died. She asks Luca to tell Janos not to be so obstinate.
“Why don’t you say it to him, Mother?”
The old lady lifted a hand, and let it fall wearily. “It will be a very long time before he comes home again,” she said, staring fixedly into space again.
In “Two Women,” one of the two short stories by Tibor Déry upon which Love is based, the message is more pointed:
“But why, Mother?” asked Luca again.
Again the old woman made no reply. She lifted her head a little, tried to include in her vision the wasp droning above the pansies, observed it a little while, and then let her head fall back onto her lilac pillow.
“Once I was watching such a wasp,” she said in a muffled voice, “that was buzzing, too, like this one above such yellow pansies, then sat down on one and because it was very heavy the pansy quickly turned her head and bent down deep to the ground. You know, if it had not bent down then perhaps its … what you call it — stem would have broke.”
“Is that what I am to tell Janos?” asked Luca.
“Yes,” said the old lady.
“It’s too late,” muttered Luca.
It was advice that Déry himself did not follow. Always an outspoken opponent of repressive regimes in his native Hungary, whether these were on the right or the left, he spent much of his life in prison or in exile. In fact, “Two Women” was based on the letters Déry’s wife wrote to his mother during his imprisonment following the failed 1956 revolution in Hungary.