We open with the teen Suzanne gazing wistfully across rippling water, recounting the events that led her from a happy, pastoral existence outside Budapest in the mid-'50s to the disgruntled adolescence she explored in garish, suburban Los Angeles 10 years later. It's a powerful story, not for excessive bathos or manipulation, but because Gárdos employs a graceful, unassuming style to transform her dramatized memoirs into a universally relatable struggle. Suzanne's not the happiest camper, but with thoughtful, deliberate pacing (edited, fittingly, by Margie Goodspeed), the director gradually allows us to understand why.
Early on, the scenes in Hungary are presented in luminous black and white, with antiquated newsreel footage of toiling peasants and ranks of Russian soldiers neatly segueing into the world of the increasingly agitated Margit and Peter, who decide to abandon their home and wealth to escape to America. Peter has been a successful publisher, but political paranoia is increasing and hope is at a premium on the streets of Budapest. With their possessions in hand, the intrepid couple pay a coarse guide to smuggle them onto a troop transport train, then lead them and their young daughter, Maria (Klaudia Szabó), to the barbed wire of the border.
The experience is fraught with danger, but there are no leaden Anne Frankisms here, no sermons preached nor fingers wagged. Rather, the primary concern is that, while the family busily obtains their visas in Vienna, their baby daughter, Suzanne, remains behind the Iron Curtain, kept safe from an untrustworthy courier by leery grandparents, then deposited with Jeno and Teri (Balázs Galkó and Zsuzsa Czinkóczi), a country couple who assume parental duties for the child's first five years. At that age, the girl's foster family is abruptly shattered, and -- roughly in parallel with the Beatles -- she hits the tarmac in America, joining her true parents, who seem to her like peculiarly friendly strangers.
None of this is new, of course. Especially in this country, we've got tales of sighing immigrants up the wazoo, and virtually every movie is about someone escaping from somewhere to go somewhere else. (It has been said that the most popular line in American film is "Let's get out of here!") However, An American Rhapsody distinguishes itself by its subtlety and good taste. Whether we catch a hint of Gypsy music on the soundtrack (by Márta Sebestyén and Ando Drom), or glimpse a disturbing American neighbor lady (Lorna Scott) trussed up in curlers and polyester, Gárdos steadfastly guards us from caricature. She wants to keep it real.
Oddly, this very tack is also the source of the film's occasional squishiness. If the story wants for something, it is surely emotional complexity, as Gárdos has painted these portraits with strokes a bit too broad. Her sincerity in this regard is easily appreciated, but with the kid gloves on, she can't give the characters' world views full service: Jeno, for instance, is simply a nice Hungarian man, seemingly incapable of spitting; Americanized Maria (Mae Whitman at 10, Larisa Oleynik at 18) is simply a bratty older sister, and so on. Gárdos does not lessen her story's impact with niceness, per se, but a few more subjective quirks might have reeled us in closer. The director has overgeneralized that "all of us try to forget the painful memories of our childhood," perhaps not realizing that this story is the very stage upon which those feet should stomp and those tears should flow.
While there is a slightly muted effect from this directorial restraint (ironic, given that Gárdos met co-producer Colleen Camp -- as a photographer's assistant and Playboy bunny, respectively -- during the insane production of Apocalypse Now), the performers give us their full intensity. Johansson (who attends Thora Birch through Ghost World) is a natural, eschewing cheap histrionics in favor of a low ache we can feel when she's standing still. When she releases her rage -- as in the disturbing sequence where Margit locks her in her room "to keep her safe" -- no one who's ever been misunderstood will doubt her credibility.
Kinski, for her part, has matured into a perfect balance for the radical gestures of girlhood. She's as lovely as she was in Tess more than two decades ago, and ever a heartache to behold, but one can now detect traces of her famous father in her features, with something still smoldering beyond convenient definition. As Margit, she's really the line connecting this whole story, frantic in Budapest, incredulous in Vienna, devastated and rebuilding her world amid the hamburgers and fireworks of American ritual. While Johansson gives us insight into the value of heated instinct over cold reason, Kinski provides the key to why so many parents refuse to trust or believe in this alleged land of the free.
Apart from good old American discipline (don't address the problem; lock it up), Gárdos has much to reveal from her memory book. Old world, new world, these are clichés, but here we feel a tangible sense of quasi-religious devotion in a well-worn Hungarian scythe versus a brand-spankin'-new American chrome bumper, and likewise gently strummed strings competing with Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up." In this context, even bananas take on an unexpected richness of meaning. When Suzanne reunites with all her family, the glimmers in their eyes cross borders and eclipse language. Bear in mind, the movie is subtle, but it should speak volumes to anyone who's ever carried a severed soul.