Kontroll, a Hungarian quasi-thriller of considerable gloomy charm, won the Prix de la Jeunesse Award at Cannes last year, and it's easy to see why. Set entirely in the depths of the Budapest subway system—at no point in its 106-minute running time do we see the light of day—the movie combines high-speed rail chases and schoolboy prankishness with the kind of romantic alienation that many young people wear with their basic black and assume will see them through the rest of their lives. Writer-director Nimród Antal, still in his early 30s, lived in Los Angeles long enough to acquire a slight Tarantino swagger. But then he went home to study filmmaking, and his movie is unmistakably European in style—Tarkovsky, by way of the Kaurismäkis, with a dab of Jim Jarmusch.
The plot, such as it is, centers on a group of ticket inspectors, a wan, lethargic breed apparently much reviled by Budapest commuters. At their helm is Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), a moody young refugee from a better life aboveground with the hollow-eyed good looks of a young Paul Henreid. Though he manages to keep his little band of losers together despite bullying from management, competition from a rival group of inspectors and intermittent provocations by a fleet-footed teenage stowaway, Bulcsú appears to have given up on life. To make matters worse, he's haunted by a mysterious hooded figure who creeps up behind commuters and pushes them into the path of oncoming trains. Then comes love, and hope, in a form only an Eastern European surrealist could conjure up, that of an exquisite woman in a rat costume with a ludicrously padded rear end.
Kontrollis goofy, smart and beguiling, and it whips up an almost unbearable luster from its grimy subterranean labyrinth—a gorgeously lit image of Bulcsú sitting disconsolate atop a huge vent in the tunnel is unforgettably wistful. What the movie lacks is a point, unless you count Bulcsú's rote existential quest. But Nimród Antal has time on his side, and we should expect to see much more, and much better, from this talented young filmmaker.