On Body and Soul

ON BODY AND SOUL/ EL TESTROL ES LELEKOL Hungary, 2017.Mrocsanyi Geza, Alexandra Borbely. Directed by Ildiko Enyedi. 117 minutes.  Rated R (Brief depiction of actual sexual activity)

On Body and Soul is quite a striking film, Hungarian in its storytelling and perspectives but with a powerful universal impact.

The film is set in an ordinary city, scenes of people’s apartments, restaurants, but most of the action taking place in an abattoir.

With the abattoir and the focus on the cattle, penned, prodded, close-ups of their eyes, their deaths, the carcasses and the blood, the hanging meat, the workers going about their tasks calmly, the abattoir as something of an image of life and human experience. While there is a lot of detail of the abattoir – and the final credits note that animals were harmed during the filming but not by the film crew because they simply photographed an abattoir at work – it is not confined to the slaughter but also to the range of members of the staff, Finance Director, Human Relations director, supervisor, as well as the various women in diverse domestic jobs.

At the film begins with another image of animals, beautiful shots of a stag and the doe in the snowy forest, their instincts, their meeting, moving towards each other and an animal affection. As it turns out, these are the animals in the dreams of the two central characters, therefore highly symbolic. Peter is the finance director at the abattoir, Maria is a supervisor and inspector. When he first sees her, standing aloof and alone as she usually does, he is fascinated, meets her in the dining room, begins a conversation – but she is very awkward in responding. As we can see almost immediately from her behaviour, she is both compulsive and obsessive in the detail of her work, in neatness, in remembering sequences and dates in exact order.

An event in the abattoir, the stealing of some pharmaceuticals, leads to a psychologist visiting and questioning all the workers, rather intrusive questions about sexual behaviour, the nature of dreams… Peter is very offhand whereas Maria is absolutely precise. It is here that the audience sees that the two have the same dreams, the psychologist thinking this is joke and Peter not disillusioning her. Interestingly, she actually does pinpoint from her examination who the culprit is.

Quite a deal of the film focuses on Maria, her attempts to begin some kind of communication with people, getting advice from the rather raunchy old lady who cleans on what to wear and how to walk, buying a mobile phone which she has never had, contacting Peter, having conversations which lead to a theoretical intimacy. She also goes to a music store, listening all day to records but finally buying that recommended by the woman at the counter.

Peter, meanwhile, dislikes one of the workers, warning him about having care for his work on the animals, suspecting him of the theft – and later apologising when the man is not the thief. Peter has an injured arm, lives alone quietly, a slapdash kind of life. Maria brings something out of him but, both of them being awkward, there are some misunderstandings – which will almost leads to tragedy.

The film is very well acted, the dialogue always interesting, the situation is identifiable with, the exploration of human nature, human bodily illness, the reality of the soul. This all makes On Body and Soul a film of high quality.

The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, 2017, as well as the prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the jury of the International Film Critics.

Released  May 3rd

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.