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TORONTO 2023 Discovery

Review: Without Air


- The debut feature from Hungarian filmmaker Katalin Moldovai meticulously explores political correctness’ destructive power on teaching

Review: Without Air
Ágnes Krasznahorkai in Without Air

"It’s about the lives of two poets. It’s only a film –You are paid to teach values, to set good standards." One day, a literature teacher recommends to her 17 year old students, at the end of a class on symbolism, the film Total Eclipse by Agnieszka Holland, but this recommendation makes a parent particularly hostile to this initiative come out of the woodwork. With her debut feature, Without Air [+see also:
film profile
, unveiled in the Discovery programme of the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, Hungarian director Katalin Moldovai (noticed in Cannes in 2019 in the Cinéfondation short film competition) methodically dissects the consequences of an apparently anodyne aside that triggers a chain of increasingly disempowering micro-events, crushing everyone under the steamroller of mob mentality (whether out of conviction or prudence) and political correctness. These dramatic events suggest a wider debate about the freedom of thought and expression.

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Our present day isn’t lacking in very serious problems, such as the Damocles sword of climate change whose details flood the radio programmes that Ana (impeccable Ágnes Krasznahorkai) listens to in her car on her way to the Balassi high school where she teaches. Between her classes, her video chats with her boyfriend who has been gone for a year working in a hospital abroad (and who keeps trying to convince her to join him), and the time spent caring for her elderly mother whose mind is starting to slip, Ana, a passionate literature professor beloved by her pupils and the school’s director (Romania’s Tünde Skovrán) is very far from imagining the ordeal she is about to go through. "A parent believes that you’ve crossed a line –But I cross it every year, and it’s never been a problem. Is it a problem for you?" Little by little, the complaint made by the influential father of her pupil Victor (Soma Sándor) will open Ana’s eyes on the world around her… 

Painting a clinically precise portrait of the ostracisation process of one individual and its social mechanisms, Katalin Moldovai (who wrote the script together with Zita Palóczi) takes the time to carefully examine all its steps and nuances: a severe ideological opposition that totally eliminates all possibilities for a dialogue, jalousies between colleagues or the risk of showing support, about-face from the immediate hierarchy as it is threatened with budgetary cuts from the municipal authorities, a pusillanimous conformism from the commissions of enquiry who cover themselves behind regulations ("teach what’s in the manual"), pressure from the media, insidious (even perverse) use of the students called to testify, etc. By choosing never to over dramatise the story and by allowing space for the professional daily life of the teacher (through rehearsals for a show), the director delivers a debut feature that is very cohesive in both form and content, and whose study of a microcosm symbolically tells us a lot about the very topical subjects of education, freedom, and the norm.  

Produced by Hungary’s Magma Cinema and Salamandra Film and Romania’s Spotfilm, Without Air is sold internationally by NFI World Sales.

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(Translated from French)

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