BEIRUT: Did you hear the one about the disabled slaughterhouse finance manager and the attractive quality control inspector? That could be the lead-in to an off-color joke, or a metaphor for the present century. It’s also the premise of “On Body and Soul,” writer-director Ildiko Enyedi’s 2017 feature. The Hungarian film is being projected as part of Beirut’s European Film Festival. It took the Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlinale and is one of five titles competing for the foreign language Oscar.
Since EFF is also projecting Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square,” the Palme d’Or-winning, Swedish feature – and as Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” has been reinjected into local cinemas ahead of March’s blingfest – local audiences are in a unique position to taste some of this year’s Oscar bait before the decision’s announced.
The story opens in a wintertime forest tableau, where a doe and a buck meet and pick through the snow for something to eat. Their noses touch briefly. She walks off frame. He follows.
It’s the first of several encounters between the two deer who, while far from the Budapest-set narrative, provide the heart of the story.
The woodland sequence is bridged to the main story by a shot of hooves crowded into an enclosed space. Audience members may feel a stab of dread that the deer have been captured. Then the camera reveals the beasts to be cows awaiting slaughter, and your concern may migrate to these creatures. Or not.
Much of “On Body and Soul” is located in this abattoir, nestled on the outskirts of Budapest. Enyedi and DP Mate Herbai share documentarians’ fascination with industrial beef processing, and snatches of laconic dialogue among human characters are interspersed with sequences detailing the cows’ mechanized stunning, bleeding, beheading and dismemberment. Veteran abattoir employees will find these sequences a trifle sanitized, but the rest of the audience will get the point.
It’s a gray old day this morning, until the sun slices briefly through the cloud – a rarity, it seems, since so many of the abattoir’s humans turn to face the light. One of these is Endre (Geza Morcsanyi), the finance manager, a reserved and physically emaciated fellow with a withered arm.
When he opens his eyes, Endre notices a pretty young woman below his window, cautiously stepping behind a pillar to escape the shaft of light piercing the gloom.
During lunch, the abattoir’s sexually insecure HR manager Jeno (Zoltan Schneider) informs him the woman isn’t an employee but the new quality control inspector.
Endre introduces himself. Her name is Maria (Alexandra Borbely) and – by slaughterhouse standards – she’s both beautiful and abrasively distant. When he calls her by her first name, Maria replies, “Please don’t. It’s inappropriate.” She’s startlingly insensitive too, remarking that he must enjoy eating mashed vegetables for lunch because it doesn’t require him to use his lame hand.
Romantic opportunities between Maria and Endre seem a nonstarter and become less likely still when the staff inform him she’s marking all the beef Grade B – being maddeningly precise when assessing the amount of fat in the meat.
Then management learns that someone’s stolen a dose of expensive bovine-mating potion. The queasy coppers decide the best way to uncover the perpetrator is to subject all staff and management to interrogation by a clinical psychologist – a young woman, as it happens.
Aside from unveiling how uncomfortable male staffers are discussing their history of coitus and masturbation with an unfamiliar female – and Maria’s precise recollection of her own history, sexual and otherwise – the questionnaires reveal the finance manager and the quality control inspector shared precisely the same dream the night before.
The balance of “On Body and Soul” follows Endre and Maria’s awkward, nervous, at times hilarious exploration of each other and themselves. To say more would detract from appreciating the craft with which the filmmakers elaborate their story and how well the abattoir’s human and bovine inhabitants foil this low-key adventure.
Enyedi’s quiet, well-written, nicely shot film has several pleasant surprises for anyone bored with the droning repetition of genre tropes that characterizes much contemporary cinema. It’s not without a derivative-looking sequence or two. By the time the story evaporates from the screen, however, it’s Enyedi’s blend of spare narrative and well-defined characters, visual lyricism and abrupt comedy that lingers.
“On Body and Soul” will be reprised Tuesday, Jan. 30, at 10:15 p.m. at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.