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White Palms

4 stars out of five

Reviewed at the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival
Running away to Le Cirque

Like countless musicals, a first-rate plot is not a prerequisite for a memorable show. In film, the absence of a believable storyline (or convincingly unbelievable narrative) can be forgiven in a flash if the visual components dazzle and delight the inner child in us all. Happy to report that Szabolcs Hajdu’s White Palms gives more pleasure than, well, a three-ring circus as it takes us under the tent of Olympic-level gymnastics and its often disdained commercial rival: trapeze “artists” and their ilk.

The true heroes of the piece are cinematographer András Nagy and editor Péter Politzer. Between them, the juxtaposition of back-story and present day is a pleasure at every vault, spring and jump. And in the grand tradition of opera, where the voice must come first, the cast is chock-a-block full of real athletes: Zoltán Miklós Hajdu stars as Dongo (exiled to Canada from Hungary to get his life back together); Orion and Silas Radies play the 10- and 13-year-old Dongo respectively—both have penetrating blue eyes that the camera instinctively lingers on, making telling points silently; gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Kyle Shewfelt plays Dongo-the-elder’s petulant protégé. His feats in both training sessions and competition (against his teacher, no less) demonstrate continuing prowess in the sport. Sadly, he’s saddled with dialogue (“Your English really sucks.”) that is one hurdle he’ll never clear, but nobody cares after his sweats come off and he gets down to his craft.

Another strong component is the music (original score by Ferenc Darvas who also appears as the pit band’s maestro). Once the opening sour tracks (like an 8-track tape that’s been left in the sun too long) have faded away, the peppy “Under the Double Eagle” stirs, the present-day crowd’s competitive juices even as a delightful arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol effectively colours the daredevil antics of the circus two decades earlier. There too, the camera’s frequent rollercoaster pans payoff in a trapeze sequence (complete with the greedy owner removing the safety net at the climactic moment—ah, melodrama à la hongroise) that is breathtaking in more ways than one.

Along the way we meet a foil-thrusting boys’ coach, Dongo’s pushy parents (who have a severe case of medal envy), scads of adolescent trophy hopefuls and their expectant elders, most of whom turn a blind eye to the flagrant abuse of authority in the name of toughening up their youngsters for victory.

After the grip dust settles, the coda is a shameless commercial for the most spectacular (if painfully conservative in its human resource policy) “cirque” the world has ever seen. No matter, leave your dramatic expectations at home and savour a truly wonderful demonstration of the art of cinema. JWR

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