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15 January 2016

An Exceptional Series of Documentary Films – On the Gyöngyössy – Kabay – Petényi Workshop

Katalin Petényi and Barna Kabay have put together a series of nine films presenting some of the fundamental strands that link the cultures of Italy and Hungary. The tenth movie surveys the life and work of mystical painter Imre Ámos, while an eleventh in the series, directed by Bence Gyöngyössy, looks at the work of the great 19th century architect Miklós Ybl. The opportunity to make these films was provided by the Milan Expo of 2015 whose organisers endeavoured to cast a spotlight on the various connections woven between cultures of the exhibiting nations. As I watch these films, it dawns on me that this “expedition” into cultural documentary film and personal portraiture is the obvious direction for Petényi and Kabay to take. They have dedicated their lives to making films, both factual and fictional, examining the interdependence of one culture with another. An interview from some twenty years ago entitled “The Directors of Dialogue” comes suddenly to mind.

We never wanted to break away from Hungary… or from Eastern Europe. We consciously took on the role of facilitating constructive dialogue between East and West, between different religions and ideologies”, said Barna Kabay. That was back in a time when modern migration had not yet begun and when TV news programmes were not full of news items about immigrants, and yet the majority of their films have looked at the lives of refugees and the persecuted peoples of the world. They have filmed in locations as far afield as Brazil, Sri Lanka, the South China Sea, Cuba, Georgia, Siberia… and I could go on. The themes always were suffering and human dignity.

Imre Gyöngyössy was a guiding star in the lives and careers of Kabay and Petényi, with whom they worked almost exclusively as a trio until his early death in 1994. And they have ever since stayed true to European Christian values, the spiritual viatic Gyöngyössy brought along with him when he left the Benedictine Grammar School of Pannonhalma. An inseparable travel companion for Gyöngyössy was his love and knowledge of the Italian language coupled with an unquenchable thirst for Italian art in all its forms. Katalin Petényi was originally an art historian for whom Italian culture formed a cornerstone of the greater European picture.

Her love of the Latinate world and her aesthetic sensitivity to beauty left a very powerful impression on her students at the College of Theatre and Film Art, where she taught between 1970 and 1980.


Katalin Petényi and Barna Kabay have put together a series of nine films presenting some of the fundamental strands that link the cultures of Italy and Hungar
y. The tenth movie surveys the life and work of mystical painter Imre Ámos, while an eleventh in the series, directed by Bence Gyöngyössy, looks at the work of the great 19th century architect Miklós Ybl. The opportunity to make these films was provided by the Milan Expo of 2015 whose organisers endeavoured to cast a spotlight on the various connections woven between cultures of the exhibiting nations. As I watch these films, it dawns on me that this “expedition” into cultural documentary film and personal portraiture is the obvious direction for Petényi and Kabay to take. They have dedicated their lives to making films, both factual and fictional, examining the interdependence of one culture with another. An interview from some twenty years ago entitled “The Directors of Dialogue” comes suddenly to mind.

We never wanted to break away from Hungary… or from Eastern Europe. We consciously took on the role of facilitating constructive dialogue between East and West, between different religions and ideologies”, said Barna Kabay. That was back in a time when modern migration had not yet begun and when TV news programmes were not full of news items about immigrants, and yet the majority of their films have looked at the lives of refugees and the persecuted peoples of the world. They have filmed in locations as far afield as Brazil, Sri Lanka, the South China Sea, Cuba, Georgia, Siberia… and I could go on. The themes always were suffering and human dignity.

Imre Gyöngyössy was a guiding star in the lives and careers of Kabay and Petényi, with whom they worked almost exclusively as a trio until his early death in 1994. And they have ever since stayed true to European Christian values, the spiritual viatic Gyöngyössy brought along with him when he left the Benedictine Grammar School of Pannonhalma. An inseparable travel companion for Gyöngyössy was his love and knowledge of the Italian language coupled with an unquenchable thirst for Italian art in all its forms. Katalin Petényi was originally an art historian for whom Italian culture formed a cornerstone of the greater European picture.

Her love of the Latinate world and her aesthetic sensitivity to beauty left a very powerful impression on her students at the College of Theatre and Film Art, where she taught between 1970 and 1980.

Those raised in different cultures inhabit different sensory worlds. It is impossible for an individual to shed their own culture, because it has fed itself into their nervous system down to its very roots. An individual’s culture defines the way they interpret the world around them. The greatest part of our culture remains hidden and falls outside the world of conscious action.” (E. T. Hall) Kabay and Petényi dedicate their films to this idea although neither of them claim expert knowledge of cultural anthropology. They came to this realisation via artistic exploration very early on in their careers.

Barna Kabay’s first film was made in a Roma settlement – we should not forget that he studied documentary filmmaking under János Herskó and Károly Makk, and his classmates included István Dárday, András Jeles, György Fehér and László Vitézy. Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay became founding members of Társulás (Association) Studio in 1980, that operated as a grassroots democratic film workshop striving to reinvent Hungarian film, and from which such films hailed as The Revolt of Job and Homeless but also The Dog’s Night Song (Gábor Bódy), Almanac of Fall, Satan’s Tango (Béla Tarr) and Transformation (Dárday and Szalai). And when they decided to take exile in Germany, they went on to establish their own documentary studio known as Macropus in Starnberg. Here, as in the great studios of the past, the craft of filmmaking was passed from father to son: Bence Gyöngyössy who was born in 1963, went on to become a film director and producer in his own right.

At the turn of the millennium they were the first filmmakers to address a sticky topic, the web of internal informers maintained by the Communist regime, that had been successfully swept under the carpet until that time. The first sub-topic they tackled was “the Church clutched at the throat by the state” in Hungary and Transylvania, and they made revealing documentary films such as Confessors and Traitors and Closely Observed Lives. Later on, they made a documentary film entitled Stigma in which they told the terrible tale of how the Securitate of Romania infiltrated every aspect of peoples’ personal lives and, in this particular case, even managed to worm its way into their marital bed. It is this topic that Bence Gyöngyössy went on to develop into his latest TV film with the tell-tale title of Janus.


Façade of the Hungarian Academy in Rome. All photos accompanying Klára Tóth’s essay are published by courtesy of Cinemastar Kft., Budapest

The episodes of the “Italian–Hungarian heritage” series all stand on their own merits and can be viewed in any order or individuall
y. The two-part story of the Hungarian Academy of Rome presents the viewer with the past and present about this unparalleled institution where two European nations meet. “Being present in Rome means nothing less than being present in the world”, says the historian Antal Molnár, current director of the Hungarian Academy of Rome. And it is the facilitation of this artistic and cultural presence that he sees as the academy’s most important task, in a manner that creates real connections with the host nation. He speaks with the precision of a true historian but at the same time brings colour and life to his personal account of the history of Hungary’s cultural representation in Rome, from the San Stefano Rotondo church via the Villa Frakno to the Hungarian Academy of Rome of the present day. One is left with the feeling that not only do “all roads lead to Rome” but that all those Italians or other foreigners with an interest in Hungarian culture somehow find themselves following one of the many roads that lead to the Hungarian Academy. Antal Molnár speaks with undeniable pride as he shows us the Palazzo Falconeri that has been home to the academy since 1927. This stunning Renaissance building was purchased by Kunó Klébelsberg, the most prominent figure in 20th-century Hungarian cultural politics, for the Hungarian state from a local family of bankers for the purposes of promoting the presentation of Hungarian creative excellence in the heart of Italy. The building still remains the most valuable foreign property owned by Hungary and János Halper’s scintillating cinematic images of this impressive palatial setting leave us in no doubt about its outstanding architectural beauty.

It is a sad fact that after 1945 the Academy’s story was far from glorious as in 1950 it became the cover institution for foreign espionage of the Communist regime. During this time, all of the directors, the staff and most of those on scholarships to the Academy were in some way “employed” by Hungarian State Security. It sends a chill down the spine to learn of the sculduggery the Communist state perpetrated on the other side of the Iron Curtain during this period, and how it drew into its service many people who were able to maintain a pretence of integrity. The Papal Hungarian Institute, that acted as a centre of the expatriate clergy, never abandoned the second floor of the building even during the darkest years and fought a constant battle with the communists in charge, who even tried at times to prevent them from entering the building.

The regime change of 1989 saw the Academy return to its original mission and serve as a centre for excellence in Hungarian science and art in the city of Rome.

The documentary film Attracted to Italy looks at the life and work of the prominent sculptor Róbert Csíkszentmihályi, whose mother and grandparents living in Fiume (Rijeka) implanted in him a strong attraction to Italy. Some of his best-known works include a relief in Saint Peter’s Basilica and a portrait of the Garibaldi loyalist István Türr in the Giancollo statue park that became a frequent meeting place for Hungarians in Rome. This film provides the viewer with a succinct, insightful yet not overblown view of the 75-year-old sculptor’s colourful career. As an art historian Katalin Petényi had the knowledge and sensitivity to create a portrait both informed and intimate.

The renowned conductor Zoltán Peskó moved house a staggering 22 times in 19 years. He has worked and lived in many of the major Italian cities including Milan, Venice and Bologna as well as Berlin and Lisbon, and yet the most important thing for him has always been to “remember where you come from”. After defecting from Hungary in 1964, he was only allowed to return again some 20 years later, when he was already recognised as a conductor of global fame. But despite this geographical distance from the land of his birth, he has remained a devotee of the greats of Hungarian music including Bartók, Kodály, Kurtág, Ligeti and Eötvös, while maintaining a passion for contemporary Italian compositions. His career also began in the Cinecitta, much like that of the emigré painter Mátyás Triznya, where he worked behind the scenes for other composers while he studied to become a conductor alongside the likes of Pierre Boulez and Ferrara. He describes the Italian people as generous, helpful and welcoming, and has a great deal of gratitude towards them.


Zoltán Peskó directing, 1970, Berlin

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Zoltán Peskó’s talent is his ability to bring his knowledge of theatre and dramaturgy to his work as a musician resulting in truly grandiose performances. For example, when he conducted Boris Godunov directed by Toni Servillo at the San Carlos Opera House in Lisbon, the cast included an astounding number 250 extras on stage. Orchestras around the world have great respect for Peskó because he has a firm idea of what he wants and the ability to make it happen. The road from Budapest to Milan was not easy but it was worthwhile. “Maestro Peskó” has become a brand name for Hungarian culture throughout the world. The portrayal of his vast and fascinating career has been created with a lightness of hand and an elegance. The poet Miklós Radnóti said once: “Friends, if the paper is small, the poem should be short.” And Barna Kabay and Katalin Petényi are skilled in the art of small-paper poetry.

The documentary film looking at the exceptional career of Charles de Tolnay, the director of the Casa Buonarroti, fills one of the many holes in Hungarian cultural history of the last century and not only speaks volumes about the fantastic power of art and culture but also examines some of the many ties between Hungary and the city of Florence. This film is a “gift” for Katalin Petényi, who – then a young art historian– interviewed Tolnay for Hungarian Television in 1974. Despite having worked abroad since his twenties, his seminal work on Michelangelo was not published in Hungary until many years later. Should there be such a thing as the Nobel Prize for Art History, Tolnay would have long since collected his and then perhaps more of his fellow countrymen would know that the leading expert on the works of Michelangelo is in fact Hungarian.


Charles de Tolnay

He set out into the world from the literary circle known simply as “Sunday” that aimed to establish an “anti-university” promoting a new spirit in both art and science. It was largely thanks to his extraordinary teacher Lajos Fülep, that in his formative age Tolnay found himself mixing in circles that included the likes of Béla Balázs, Arnold Hauser, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály and György Lukács. Then he left to study in Vienna, where he soon learned that a good art historian needed to possess not only talent but ethical confidence, inner vocation and a wealth of knowledge. He later travelled on to Florence, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris, where he studied and also taught. It was in 1938, when the shadow of Nazism spread across Europe, that he left Paris and took up a post at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University, where he had for colleagues several renowned figures of the age, including Erwin Panofsky, János Neumann, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Now a recognised expert in his field, he was invited to run the Casa Buonarroti in Florence after the Second World War, where he established a museum and study centre dedicated to Michelangelo. His Italian colleagues and the current director of the museum have nothing but praise for his work and it was a complete and utter pleasure for me to spend time in his enlightening company.


Mátyás Triznya, Roman scene, watercolour

The painter Mátyás Triznya and his wife, the radio editor-turned-writer Zsuzsa Szőnyi have both written their names in the book of Italian–Hungarian cultural connections as active agents of their promotion. The miracle happened in Milan for them when, as an unknown painter from Hungary, Mátyás was recommended by Vince Korda to work alongside an American special effects maestro as a scenery painter on Vittorio de Sica’s seminal work Miracolo a Milano. It is touching to learn that his father-in-law, the renowned Hungarian painter István Szőnyi, corresponded with his daughter’s husband and offered him all the help he could in the form of suggestions, professional tips and even sketches. Mátyás Triznya later went on to find work at a second Italian film studio but always remained a painter at heart, who created a wealth of watercolours depicting the Rome of ancient times. His name will always be associated with the “Triznya Pub” that he and his wife “ran” for many years in their home in Rome. It was here on Saturday evenings that Hungarian émigrés and visitors exchanged information on the very latest in culture and art from both Hungary and beyond, a knowledge the latter brought back to Hungary during the lean years of communism. The memory and the atmosphere of the Triznya Pub has been captured in several films to date but yet this is the first time it has been presented as part of the Szőnyi heritage, thus perfectly recreating the ethos of the era in the early years of the second half of the 20th century. This film also reflects a wealth of background research and Katalin Petényi’s extensive knowledge of the life and work of István Szőnyi and his home for many years in Zebegény.


Imre Ámos (left) in auxiliary military service, December 1940

Rome was to Szőnyi and Triznya what Paris was to Imre Ámos and his wife Margit Anna. The Ámos documentary was inspired by Katalin Petényi’s 1982 monograph on the painter. Paris and his untimely and tragic death linked him closely in spirit and inspiration to his great contempotaty, the poet Radnóti. The ordeals of forced labour during the Second World War eventually destroyed both artists who remained strongly attached to their art until the last days of their lives on their escalating descent into the fearsome flames of the hell that was the Holocaust. Such parallels rarely exist between artists of different genres, and they are touched upon very skilfully in this film. We are not only introduced in fascinating detail to Ámos’ art as a painter but also his spiritual roots and creative inspiration drawn from the worlds of the provincial Hasidim in Hungary. And the more his faith was challenged by the cruelty of the world around him, the more devotedly he held onto his religious views and ethical code. Often choosing to describe himself as a surrealist expressionist, Ámos’ works projected the horrors of war with an uncanny prophetic power as he remained a man repulsed by aggression and with a deep faith in truth and humanity until the very last.

This film is one of the most powerful in the series – perhaps because the filmmakers have presented the culture and habits of the Hasid Jewish tradition in a number of their films (The Revolt of Job, Let Ye Inherit). This film holds talent, ethical confidence and inner dedication together, as prescribed by Charles de Tolnay working this time in the modern medium of documentary film.


Imre Ámos, painting with knife and angel

In The Architect of a Nation, Bence Gyöngyössy presents the career of Miklós Ybl, whose oeuvre did so much to define the image of historicist Budapest. The director made the perfect choice when he relied on the expertise of the architect József Őrfi whose knowledge of the profession and the buildings of Budapest is so extensive that one could listen to him talk for hours more. The time seems to fly by and this has a great deal to do with the excellent choice of music that recreates the mood of the late 19th century, when the once German-speaking provincial town of Pest together with ancient Hungarian Buda budded into the country’s capital, helped greatly in its advancement by a fine selection of imposing buildings designed by the skilled hand of Miklós Ybl.


Portrait of Miklós Ybl

Born in 1814, Miklós Ybl travelled to Italy in 1841, where the style and the spirit of the Renaissance had a decisive influence on his approach to his profession. He was taught by Mihály Pollack, architect of Budapest’s fine National Museum, but
the Neo-Renaissance palaces and tenements that stand on all four sides of the museum reflect in fact Ybl’s contemporary take on history. One of these is the Italian Institute on Bródy Sándor Street which was in fact the predecessor to Hungary’s world-renowned Parliament building, where the National Assembly had convened in the late decades of the 19th century. But his name is also linked to Saint Stephen’s Basilica, the Opera House, the Castle Garden Bazar and even the reconstruction of the Royal Palace of Buda included a number of his ideas. Ybl became an iconic figure in Hungarian architecture and had the greatest influence on the generation of architects to follow. It is true of all the films in this series, and particularly this one, that they would all feature well if shown in museums and schools.


Main staircase of the Hungarian State Opera House, Budapest, 1875–1884

At first I was a little surprised to find a series of films so closely linked to the creative arts to include a documentary on the life and work of the researcher József Béres and the story of the Béres Drops. After its humble beginnings in Béres’ home laboratory, the renowned elixir became eventually a major industry and pharmaceutical export. It is, however, undeniably true that culture consists of a quality of life, and it is this that the Béres family strive to improve with their range of interests, whether in the arts or healing. Perhaps the most important aspect of
Life Drops is that it draws our attention to the extensive charity work supported by the organisation that participates in humanitarian projects around the globe. The non-profit arm of the family firm is active not only in such far-flung locations as Haiti and Cambodia, but also works to support those helping the homeless in Hungary. The Italian connection in this case is that the Béres Drops form part of a programme run by the Salesian Sisters of Padova, a charitable religious order who feeds and nourishes starving children in impoverished areas of Haiti.


Barna Kabay, Imre Gyöngyössy and Katalin Petényi, La Rochelle, 1993

Last but not least, I would like to say a few words about
Hope and Myth (in two parts) that looks at the life and work of the filmmaker and poet Imre Gyöngyössy. It must have been a great challenge to make a film about the man with whom Kabay and Petényi were so closely associated professionally and personally for so many years. The first part makes use of Gyöngyössy’s own writings and poems as the soundscape against the backdrop of which we see film excerpts, location shots and family photographs. Gyöngyössy sees his own path in life with exceptional clarity and reflects on art and humanity. He writes: “I am a small light helping to shed light on history.” And we find this to be true from the footage of his films: the majority of his creations, both on paper and celluloid, speak about the challenges faced by man in the modern age. He makes regular reference to his years spent in prison, after the 1956 Revolution, where he was forced to learn how it is possible to generate hope and the strength to survive in the most abject of circumstances.

His time spent as a secondary student at Pannonhalma schooled him not only in the Bible and Italian culture and language, but also instilled him with a deep faith. He was taught during those years by Gellért Békés, who later went on to edit a Catholic journal in Rome that helped to unite and inform Hungarian émigrés across Europe and around the world. In very much the same way as with the film about Imre Ámos, the excellent combination of poetry and prose to accompany film footage and personal accounts prove perfectly effective and terribly touching. At one point Gyöngyössy recalls how he was forced to leave the land of his birth, where he had done so much to assist those younger than him, because he felt himself to be largely rejected by the profession and, as he put it, lost his own generation. Among many other projects, he also participated in writing the screenplay for Ten Thousand Days, the 1968 Cannes Prize movie of Ferenc Kósa, because the cataclysmic tragedy of the Hungarian peasantry in the middle decades of the 20th century was a topic that affected him greatly.

The pressures and violence suffered by ethnic and religious minorities became a major fascination for him as a filmmaker. And his works that looked at the fate of the Roma, the Jews, the Volga Germans and the Tamils proved disturbingly prophetic in many ways. “Our century is the century of refugees”, he wrote in reference to the 20th century, and that is going to gain even greater truth in the 21st, as we see. He speaks with joy, hope and genuine excitement about his first sojourn in Italy in 1965 that was repeated many times afterwards. And his poems were only published in Hungarian posthumously in 2000 – it was of considerable comfort to him that the social radicalism and Christian humanity of his works found an appreciative audience in countries throughout the rest of Europe.


Still from Imre Gyöngyössy’s film The Exiled – two women of the Volga German community “transferred” by Stalin

The great and the good of European film including David Robinson, Giacomo Gambetti, Marcel Martin, Bruno Torri and Jean-Loup Passek all appraise his work as a poet and filmmaker and are keen to point to his humanity, his links to his peasant roots, his use of magical realism and his documentarist approach as fundamental characteristics of his art. He was a leading figure of the Hungarian New Wave and yet his contribution to his chosen art form has largely been forgotten by the cinematic professions. It is saddening to realise that 20 years have now passed since his untimely death and no monograph has been published on his unique contribution to filmmaking both in Hungary and beyond.




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