When I was in high school, I had a very good English teacher who after assigning Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” warned us to pay careful attention to the pistols in Act One that Hedda Gabler shows off to a houseguest. They were inherited from her father and supposedly useful for killing time in a stultifying bourgeois household. Whenever you see a pistol or a knife in a play early on, he told us, that creates an uneasy foreshadowing of their being used in the final act. The titular character, bored and frustrated in the same way as Madame Bovary and other Victorian-era housewives, does end up shooting herself in the head.
At the beginning of “The Citizen”, a Hungarian film directed by Roland Vranik that opens today at the Metrograph theater in New York, we meet the main character Wilson Ugabe, a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, being grilled by a Hungarian immigration official, a member of a three-person panel, to determine whether he is entitled to become a citizen. “Tell me something about Hungarian art in the Renaissance.” “Do you remember what the Corvins were?” “Humanism”? Wilson remains silent, as you’d expect from having to take the Hungarian version of a test African-Americans took during the Jim Crow era to become registered to vote.
As it happens, the Corvins were a monarchic clan that ruled Hungary in the 16thcentury, deriving their name from the Latin word for raven. As for humanism, the joke is that the test is given to someone fluent in the Hungarian language like Wilson to deny him citizenship, an inhumanely exclusionary act. Can you imagine a Hungarian immigrant in Guinea-Bissau trying to become a citizen being denied even after mastering Portuguese, the official language, because he cannot answer questions about 18thcentury Mandinka history? Of course not.
One small act demonstrates the humanism his interrogators so sorely lack. Employed as a security guard in a shopping mall, Wilson spots a young shoplifter putting a small bottle of toiletries into his back pocket. He casually walks up to him and whispers in his ear: Don’t try to walk out with that or an alarm will go off. After retrieving the bottle from him and placing it back on the shelf, he offers another word of advice: Don’t run from the store or you will attract attention. Just don’t come back again.
Wilson Ugabe’s lack of citizenship in today’s Hungary is like Hedda Gabler’s pistol. It creates a sense of looming danger that is omnipresent throughout the film despite its many upbeat moments, chief among them his love affair with Mari, the Hungarian tutor he has hired to prepare him for the next exam. Both in their sixties, their autumnal romance has an intensity not often seen in films today. It was touched off after a long day of walking through museums learning about Hungarian culture when he applied some salve to her aching ankles.
Wilson lives in modest circumstances. He has shared an apartment with another African immigrant who is departing for a new job in Vienna, leaving behind his poster of Fela Kuti as a gift. In one tutoring session with Mari, she plays a Bartok CD to get him up to speed on Hungarian culture. When she asks him how he likes it, he says that it is okay but that he prefers Fela Kuti, who he plays for her on the boombox.
In a field trip to a museum, Maria tries to explain the role of King Saint Stephen, the 11th-century monarch who made Christianity a state religion. Showing his knowledge of this part of Hungarian history, Wilson mentions to Mari that the King showed little mercy to a rival warlord named Kopanny who after being defeated by Stephen’s superior forces was drawn and quartered, with the saintly Stephen ordering his body parts to be put on display at the front gates of Hungary’s major cities. For Wilson, this is the kind of brutality that forced him to become a refugee. A militia had killed his wife and “disappeared” his two daughters. If he had remained in Africa, he would have suffered the same fate.
Despite her racial tolerance and the sincere attempts to integrate him into Hungarian society, there is a hint that Mari is susceptible to the nationalism that has swept across Hungary under Viktor Orban that makes life hell for immigrants. She tells Wilson that although King Saint Stephen was cruel, his success in uniting the country under Christianity justified the means toward that end.
A day after his roommate has driven off to Vienna, a young and very pregnant Iranian woman named Shirin shows up at Wilson’s doorstep. She has fled from an undocumented immigrant camp and sought refuge in the apartment that the former roommate offered to her as a haven from immigration cops. When her water breaks, Wilson shows the kind of resourcefulness you’d expect. He helps her deliver the baby and becomes their protector. When Mari decides to leave her husband and move in with Wilson, they all make efforts to get along with each other although Maria’s Hungarian prejudices–despite herself–and her jealousy toward the young and beautiful woman creates a dramatic tension that is only resolved in the climax of the film with the same kind of bang as Hedda Gabler’s pistol.
In a brilliant casting stroke, Roland Vranik has Marcelo Cake-Baly play Wilson Ugabe. Cake-Baly was an economist who lost his job after Hungary abandoned Communism and was forced to take one driving a tram in Budapest. When he asked a young man at a tram stop recently not to smoke, since it was forbidden, he was told that Hungary was his home and that a migrant like him should have drowned in the sea.
Vranik co-wrote the screenplay with István Szabó, who is one of the most respected figures in Hungarian film. His 1981 “Mephisto” won the academy award for best foreign-language film with its portrayal of a Hungarian actor who opportunistically accepts an offer by the Nazi occupiers to help create theater friendly to their regime. Like Faust, the actor sold his soul to the Devil. Clearly, helping to write “The Citizen” was a project that István Szabó saw as consistent with his long-standing humanist leanings that is under siege in Hungary today with Viktor Orban’s ambition to become Hungary’s Satan.