Venice 2023 review: Explanation for Everything (Gábor Reisz)

“A timely film in an era of increasing polarization and unwillingness to listen to ‘the other side’, seen through a non-judgemental lens.”

Patriotism, polarization, the role of media in politics, the reverberations of history. Explanation for Everything, the third feature of Hungarian director Gábor Reisz, bites a lot of big themes off, but miraculously manages to chew them all, and with nuance to boot. In a country where ultra-nationalism has become the norm for a big chunk of society (and unfortunately the ruling chunk), Reisz examines its origins and how two key moments in its past have contributed to its slide towards fascism, while those sliding do not realize how their actions contribute to Hungary approaching the abyss. A hefty runtime and stern formalism requires an investment on the part of the viewer, but those going in with an open mind might find the film opens eyes as well as it shows the pitfalls of national pride without directly blaming those who engage in it.

On the eve of his high school graduation exams 18-year-old Ábel (Adonyi-Walsh Gáspár) is a nervous wreck; weren’t we all on the first true crossroads of our lives? He is quite confident about most subjects but it is History that he fears, not in the least because his parents drill him on specifically this subject. Ábel’s father György (István Znamenák), a proud nationalist, speaks of EU politicians as ‘the enemy’. The fact that a junior partner at his architecture firm wants to leave Hungary because he is sick of the country’s internal strife leaves György with a sour taste in his mouth; as a child of socialism he thinks this is squandering the legacy of people like his parents who helped build up the country. On the other end of the spectrum is Ábel’s liberal History teacher Jakab (András Rusznák), someone who despises the rise of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party that has ruled Hungary for over a decade now. Wrapped up in his work on a documentary about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, his neglect for his family causes friction with his wife. And his worst storm is yet to come.

On the day of the exams Ábel wears a jacket with a patriotic lapel pin on it. Not because he shares his father’s staunch beliefs, but because he simply forgot to take it off after the national holiday that commemorates another revolution, that of March 15th, 1848. When he blanks out on his oral History exam, a frustrated Jakab asks him why he is wearing the pin, not knowing that this will trigger a media storm. Ábel completely flubs the oral, and at home has to endure the wrath of a father who sees his son’s future slipping through his fingers. Ábel off-handedly mentions the pin incident, and it doesn’t sit well with György. The story of Jakab’s innocuous question spreads like a game of telephone, until it eventually reaches the ear of a journalist writing for a nationalist newspaper. Suddenly the three men find themselves at the heart of a media scandal.

Reisz approaches the story through the viewpoints of all three characters central to the plot, and does so with a very nuanced look at all three men. The easiest (though perhaps hardest to play; Gáspár captures his character’s insecurity perfectly) is Ábel. A teenager not interested in his father’s stories nor in the subjects he finds important, Ábel is simply a lanky boy with a secret and unrequited love for a classmate. He is the blank canvas the other two men try to make their clashing paintings on. The character the audience would (like to) most identify with is probably Jakab; his moral heart seems to be in the right place. But he is also shown as a man who forgets his family life in lieu of his own pursuits, and as somebody with a short fuse. Something he shares with what is without a doubt the most challenging character of the three: György.

Through György, Reisz examines with an open mind the world view and thought process of a man most people these days would easily write off as ‘right-wing extremist’. A deep-seated nationalist pride, Orbán voter, hostile towards the EU and to foreigners. Reisz does not make excuses for his behaviour but shows György, and by extension the country’s current move towards the right, as a product of Hungary’s history. The country has been under outside influence for a lot of its existence. Ottomans, Habsburgs, the Soviet Union; every time Hungary frees itself from the yoke of foreign rule, a new one pops up soon after. It’s easy to see why with the right populist rhetoric the EU can be made into yet another foreign ‘invader’ deciding Hungary’s fate from the outside. The two historic revolutions are key themes for the film, and if you combine all this with a generation who helped rebuild Hungary after the end of communist rule, György’s point of view can be better understood.

This brings him head to head with Jakab, which ushers in what is perhaps the main theme of Explanation for Everything: the total lack of dialogue between the two factions of Hungarian society these characters represent. This is exemplified by a heated debate between them that highlights how both sides have dug in and quickly fall back on their polarized talking points, accusing the others of hiding behind their titular explanations. But as an outsider, the audience can see where both of them are coming from. By looking at the central issues from three different angles, each with about equal runtime, Reisz keeps hold of a steady pace that allows for a nuanced look at an ever-widening divide, a theme which extends to outside Hungarian borders. His direction is sober, with any directorial flourishes that could distract from the central dynamic between the three characters cast aside. Apart from some minor niggles (the way Ábel’s story reaches the press is quite silly, and a metaphor of a repeatedly leaking refrigerator superfluous) Reisz’s ambitious project pays off in spades. At the presentation of this year’s line-up artistic director Alberto Barbera said that he perhaps should have put Explanation for Everything in Competition, and it is easy to see why (and he absolutely should have). It is a timely film in an era of increasing polarization and unwillingness to listen to ‘the other side’, seen through a non-judgemental lens that we could all use every once in a while before we step into our next heated conversations about politics.