The dirty little secret of most of Los Angeles’ small, specialized film festivals and national film showcases is that they are regularly unable or unwilling to show the best work of their particular specialty or region. All of which makes the eighth edition of the Hungarian Film Festival of Los Angeles a surprise. Showing a mere 16 features, the event has managed several nice things, starting with the first local screening of a 2008 Cannes prize winner: Kornél Mundruczó’s stunning, tragic pastorale, Delta. Mundruczó has created some kind of ideal European art film, balancing a fine sense of contemplation and time’s inevitable passing with precisely staged drama and primal conflicts directed at the gut. This fable of a long-lost son (Félix Lajkó) returning home to the immense Danube delta and falling into a forbidden erotic relationship with his half-sister (Orsi Tóth) contains what has made the best of recent world cinema seem so vital: the rediscovery of the essence of silent film, the poetry of storytelling through images without psychology.
Csaba Bollók’s Iska’s Journey, one of several films in the festival originally shown at the annual Hungarian Film Week in Budapest (the country’s top fest showcase), is more harrowing. The Film Week’s best film pick in 2007, Bollok’s film traces the descent of young Iska (Mária Varga) from slaving for her family in coal fields to being kidnapped into prostitution, but it refuses to be a grind and manages to retain a distinct humanity. For even greater intensity, try Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, which features the stunning and virtually unknown Norwegian actor Kirsti Stubø in a performance that can only be compared to Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The only shame in this extreme study of creative madness and primitive science is that Stubø and co-star Ulrich Thomsen (perhaps Europe’s most consistently brilliant film star) are dubbed into Hungarian. The dubbing issue plagues Hungarian cinema in general, including the minor The Eighth Day of the Week, with the great Polish actor Maja Komorowska dubbed in an off-putting manner, though not as off-putting as the film’s ridiculous plot about an elderly widow bilked by real estate sharks. Until its weak ending, director Anna Faur’s Girls sharply conveys the unhinged impulses pulling two teen girls (French actors Fulvia Collongues and Hélène François, also dubbed) toward a dark abyss. One’s view of Transylvania may be altered by Csaba Bereczki’s lovely, languorous documentary Song of Lives, which observes several top Gypsy, Romanian and Hungarian folk musicians and dancers happily performing in the land of Dracula. (Sunset 5; through Thurs., Oct. 23. www.hffla.org.)