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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 08.24.09] Hungary movie review scifi thriller drama



Year: 2009
Directors: Pater Sparrow
Writers: Stanislaw Lem / Judit Góczán / Pater Sparrow
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 9 out of 10

[Editor's note: There be spoilers ahead. And this is one of the most brilliant films I've ever seen.]

Voiceover: “This book is no joke. We could be outraged by it and see it as slander that insults the whole of mankind. However, we might seek comfort from the fact that no one could make it into a film.” And so begins 1, a stunningly brilliant satire of damn near everything that makes us human, and a mind-wrenching examination of the nature of reality in a perceptual world.

It’s wicked.


First, some background. This very clever movie is based on an essay by the late, great Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. Part of his prodigious output included dabbles in the rare genre of fictional books, and this is taken from a collection called One Human Minute, which contains three reviews, with the title piece a review of an imaginary book of statistical tables, a numeric compilation of everything that happens to human life on Earth within any given 60 second period. That imaginary book is the centerpiece of 1. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the Lem “review” of One Human Minute, so I can’t tell where and how director-writer Pater Sparrow and main writer Judit Góczán deviate from Lem’s original vision. But it probably doesn’t matter. Lem’s concept of the magic book is the basis for this story, and 1 is the couldn’t-be-made film of the book. Or rather, what the book does when it’s finally “published”.

But it’s not just the story that makes this dense and mysterious film as compelling as it is. Its variety is truly amazing. For starters, 1 is filmed as a number of genres: mystery, drama, documentary and reality. It varies among explicit montages, straight-out dramatic scenes, fantasy dream segments and newscasts. The direction is superb, sweeping us through a labyrinth of philosophies, ideas, and beliefs – all of which are skewered and roasted in Sparrow’s laconic take on mankind’s muddled relationship with reality. As with everything else in this tightly-packed movie, even the cinematography offers a variety of styles, from the formal to hand-held documentary to clips of old and current newsreels. Wanda Kiss, who also edited Transmission, does a wonderful job here, seamlessly weaving together endless montages and fast-paced dramatic scenes. The art direction is also fantastic, especially in the police headquarters, where the hi-tech equipment is offset by crumbling rooms, broken and dirty glass, peeling paint and general disarray. It’s another example of the dualism the movie explores, and is very well done.

The plot. It’s quite convoluted and jam-packed with Lemsian philosophic concerns about communication, reality, art and perception of the truly alien. Basically, a big, white book with the number 1 on its cover and spine magically appears in an elite rare bookshop. The book is an impossibility – it’s nothing but chapters with columns of numbers – but is it perfectly specific and inclusive. The action both reviews the book and shows how its appearance is interpreted by three forces – the authorities, who represent reason and the state, the spiritual man, who represents the transcendent universe and dream states, and the world population, who represent stupid, paranoid, media-led humanity in general. It’s a fantastic story.

But however cleverly plotted 1 is, the main attraction for me is the voice-over and dialogue. 1 is really a talkie flick. Like Dr Nathan in The Atrocity Exhibition, in 1 a character named Dr Anselmi “rationalizes reality” and gives us a running commentary/explanation on the book, the main characters and the overall world situation as the plot progresses. Ironic as this is, the dialogue among the characters is hilariously split between hard science babble and hard philosophy babble, with the spiritual man a walking encyclopedia of vague new age aphorisms and the detective obsessively stuck in the reasonable universe and its thought police. Strewn within this wreckage are fast and funny potshots at a wide variety of subjects, including publishing, intellectualism, politics, science, and, for lack of a better term, religion.

When all the laughs are over, however, 1 is a challenging movie about reality… and the conclusion is deceptively simple: reality is what our minds tell us it is. We live ultimately in a world of the imagination, and The Book – an impossible construct – represents our inability to exist outside the world of perception. For the spiritual man, it’s all a dream and we don’t know we’re asleep. Our only hope is to share our dreams through the imagination. For the top authority it’s all inexplicable, but the point is to name the perpetrators and solve the crime. Problem is, there is no crime, only reaction. No perpetrators, only witnesses. The general population, fed by the media, is angered by this invasion of their privacy, and ultimately burn the book. Their fear is the authors will next quantify their dreams. In 1 we’re challenged with the age-old questions of our individualism and mental state and how to recognize knowledge when the real world is filtered and warped through our unique perceptual psychosystems. We can’t be sure in the existence of others. Or even our own existence. “Everything is a question in itself”, Dr Anselmi intones at the close. “To which everything together is the answer!” And that is probably as close to understanding this movie’s imaginative theme as you’re going to get. Don’t like reality? Change your perception of it.

Needless to say, I love this flick. When I watch it again I’m sure there will be many more little references -- ironic, satiric and philosophic -- that will continue to make this movie a highly amusing trip into a relentless house of mental mirrors. Oh, and don’t forget to watch it with a few pears around.

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quietearth (8 years ago) Reply

I strongly agree. Satirical, but heavily rooted in eastern philsophy and mythology, this is seemingly unfilmable.. but it worked. Easily in my top 100 films.

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sanbas (8 years ago) Reply

Interesting concept, stunning visuals, but too caotic. You can tell it's the first film of the director, because he wanted to pack everything in it.

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thejamminjabber (8 years ago) Reply

Where did you see this and how do i get my hands on it?

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agentorange (8 years ago) Reply

There were times, particularly in the police station, when I felt as though the film was taking place in the mind pr sub conscience with each of the characters representing warring emotions and belief systems. That's how truly metaphysical and disorienting it becomes at times.

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zyi (8 years ago) Reply

wow looks stunning.
where or how can i get it?

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rickmcgrath (8 years ago) Reply

This is one of those films you watch the first time to get the gist of the story, then watch a second time to enjoy the nuances... you never really know where you are -- in reality or in a character's imagination -- except for the re-appearing anchor of the voiceover. I don't know how you get a copy of this, but I'd certainly encourage you to look. I was told to keep plot elements to a minimum, so you really have no idea how cool the story is. This film has certainly re-awakened my interest in Lem, tho...

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quietearth (8 years ago) Reply

This film is not available yet and will probably be running the fest circuit for a while. We'll let you all know when it's available on DVD.

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Dan Winclechter (8 years ago) Reply

I've been watching over this one for a long. I'm dying to see it, so hopefully some sort of US release occurs eventually, or at least a subtitled DVD release somewhere. Glad to hear it turned out great.

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Ben Austwick (8 years ago) Reply

I'm not going to read this because of the spoilers, but I', a big fan of Lem, trust Rick's opinion and will heed the 9 out of 10 score!


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