The Notebook

The Notebook (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A pair of twin boys (László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt) are sent to live with their grandmother in the country because it is too dangerous for them to stay in the city during the war. Mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) hopes to collect them by the time it is over. The boys do not receive a warm welcome. Aside from having demanding chores in the middle of winter, Grandmother refuses to call them by name, only referring to them as “bastards.” She is convinced her daughter does not really have a husband given they have not seen each other in two decades. In the village, Grandmother is infamous for being a witch who lives in seclusion.

“The Notebook,” based on a novel by Agota Kristof, requires a bit of time to set up its tracks but once the foundation is laid out, looking away is almost impossible. The story takes place in a remote Hungarian village during World War II and the focus is on the two boys, once privileged and sheltered, learning how to live without an appropriate adult figure for guidance. What results is a fascinating work, so bizarre and horrifying at times that I became convinced the events shown here actually happened.

The twins do not have a name and they function as one. Having left home and essentially looking out for themselves around the age in which their sense of right and wrong is expected to mature, something goes seriously wrong. The boys eventually develop a fascination with taking lives away—initially toward bugs then the need evolving toward mammals. They read the Bible and know the Ten Commandments by heart, but since it is a time of war, the rules must not apply. They claim they must learn to adapt.

Certainly the picture is worthy of discussion. We wonder if the boys’ actions could be due to abandonment issues. It is also possible that they are born with an inclination to kill. The material does not provide easy answers to our questions—which is a good quality—and so we look closely. From my observations, it does not require them a significant time to feel all right with killing. Maybe it is in them in the first place. However, one can argue that their trauma is so severe, time may be negligible.

Is the culture of the village simply backwards or is there a collective insanity at work? Utilizing violence in order to teach a lesson appears to be the norm. So, the twins believe that they must train their bodies to endure it. They do so by beating each other either with their bare hands or with a belt. Grandmother prefers wet towels. Sometimes she prefers to starve them or leave them outside in the cold.

But the abuse is not solely physical. At times it is sexual. The officer (Ulrich Thomsen) with a neck brace looks at them with lust. People who know him are aware of his amorous advances with other boys and yet they fail to take action. We meet a maid (Diána Kiss), a girl with a cleft palate (Orsolya Tóth), and a shoemaker (János Derzsi). One of these three will make sexual advances toward the twins. We watch in horror because we are convinced that help is not coming.

“A nagy füzet,” based on the screenplay by András Szekér and directed by János Szász, is a war film that does not rely on sentimentality to incite emotions from us. It is confident about the images presented on screen and the difficult circumstances regarding its subjects.

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