MOVIE REVIEW – Set in 1984 in socialist Hungary, Western Vacation has a retro feel to it, but the Hungarian film comedy is also “retro” in that it recalls such eighties classics of the genre as European Vacation and Tall Blond Man in Upside Down Shoes, and there’s a hint of Witness in there too.
When I heard the classic quote from The Witness (A tanú) in a scene from Western Vacation, I, of course, got the idea that this was a massive wink from the creators at the best political satire of all time, which is (sadly…) quite relevant again today. As Dániel Tiszeker, the director of the film, revealed in an interview after the press screening: the aim of this film was not at all to make a political satire comparable to The Witness (or any kind of), so the quote was nothing more than a poke in the eye of the viewer in a comedy film that quotes so many other classics from the eighties. Let’s see how successfully…
„Let’s do it!”
The story of the film is set in Hungary in the mid-1980s. Gyuri Maurer (Máté Mészáros) is a very skilful and professional car mechanic from Veszprém who can solve everything since he also fixes the Ladas of the party leaders of the high-ranking party functionaries. But his family is on the French Riviera, and everything is set for a holiday, but they are unexpectedly surprised to find that instead of four passports, only three arrive, so one of the children, Pete (Mátyás Tóth), has to stay at home. (Gyuri has an unexpected idea: he “borrows” the Western car left at his home by a Hungarian dissident. Instead of Hungarians heading west with a German car and documents, he finds tourists from the west who can enjoy the ultimate luxury at Lake Balaton. They have no idea how much trouble the “borrowed” car will cause them, as they will soon become part of a spy story…
The Short Stout Man, in an Awkward Position
The basic storyline is reminiscent of the classic comedy film The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe. Still, instead of the little musician played by Jean-Pierre Richard, who is involved in the French secret service, the main character is Máté Mészáros, a car mechanic who has to take his place in a typical Hungarian spy story in Eastern Europe with his small family. The great strength of the film is the performance of Mészáros, who excellently plays the character of the small Hungarian entrepreneurial man of the “let’s solve it smart” type, who is wedged between his often hysterical and demanding family on one side and the usually cretinous Hungarian secret service and party functionaries on the other. In this respect, of course, the film is just as realistic as the aforementioned French classic, but that is not what we expect of it. But the more contemporary is the setting of the Western Holiday (various objects, such as TVs, furniture, or vehicles). It is worthy of special praise that original things were used for the filming, not just “trendy copies” – as Dániel Tiszeker mentioned in the interview – and this is evident in the film’s visual world.
A family holiday
Although Western Vacation is not a satire on par with Witness, it is a surprisingly good portrayal of the era through a comedy with a laugh. The film also features iconic figures of the eighties, such as the once curly-haired socialist pop star Rezső Soltész (Márton Patkós) and János Kádár. Soltész’s performance was excellent, but Kádár, unfortunately, became so out of character and did not resemble the original party leader in style or appearance that I did not recognise him at first when he appeared on the screen. That was perhaps the most significant negative of the film.
However, the aim of Western Vacation was not to be realistic, to use political satire to put former politicians on trial, or to take socialism itself more seriously (perhaps drawing parallels with Hungary today…), but just to entertain. It’s a mixture of a European Vacation and a Tall Blond Man, “made in Hungary”, only instead of the main characters of Chevy Chase and Jean-Pierre Richard, it’s a typical Hungarian car mechanic, “solved ‘smartly’” by Máté Mészáros and the rest of the cast with professional comic skills.
Western Vacation is fun and funny, but you shouldn’t expect the depths of a true satire – even a parody of a particular genre. For example, the aforementioned Tall Blond Man was a pinpoint parody of film noir, which was particularly popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, here we really get ‘just’ a Hungarian European holiday. A light Hungarian holiday, but maybe that’s precisely what we need in these times…