The Exam: the spy who cheated
by Domenico La Porta
- Hungarian director Péter Bergendy's second feature, recently screened in Karlovy Vary, is the latest in a long line of spy films high in suspense and full of twists in the plot.
After the success of his first film Stop Mom Theresa!, Péter Bergendy was able to attract a decent amount of public funding (in a Hungarian film sector not doing so well) for The Exam (news), his second feature that recently premiered in the East of the West section of the competition at the 47th Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
The film is set on Christmas Eve 1957, in Budapest, in the wake of the 1956 revolution. The prime minister has ordered that all his secret agents be systematically followed as part of his fight against counter-revolutionaries. In this climate of cold terror, one agent's loyalty to the socialist state will be tested by his bosses through a test -- The Exam -- of which he is unaware. Jung lives undercover in a flat where he meets other informers whose identity he knows, but when he lets the woman he loves into this space under surveillance, both the test and his career ambitions are seriously compromised. His mentor then decides to take position in this game of chess to protect his protégé from a decidedly far too paranoid administration.
Compared to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, another recent spy film set in the equally complex politico-historical context of a key moment in European history, The Exam's narrative seems quite simple. The Exam is a thriller with a strong psychological component, but its confined spaces and the limited timeframe of the action -- one night -- stretch the story like a piano cord that Norbert Köbli's screenplay allows to vibrate in tune, but nevertheless without the (at times indecipherable) virtuosity of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's film. Péter Bergendy's film is well-directed and intelligent, but however obvious, as the audience somewhat expects the twist in its third part. This is why the director has, as much as possible, tried to blur any clues by focusing on the acting. The student (Zsolt Nagy) and his master (János Kulka) particularly stand out, in these actors' second performance together since the excellentKontroll by Nimród Antal. In this game of play and counterplay, the men's two faces constantly give off signals that distract the audience until the film's ending, which is cynical and might be a little too suddenly unravelled for members of the audience familiar with the genre.
(Translated from French)
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