Appreciating Miklós Jancsó as Hungary’s greatest living filmmaker means first accepting that there is almost never anyone to care about in his films, only nameless pawns locked in the toxic rituals of power and war. Everyone plays his part in a Jancsó production, although the roles of oppressor and oppressed are often interchangeable. Characters are casually snuffed out before there’s even a fighting chance of developing empathy for them. Masses of humans are reduced to geometric patterns through a series of precisely composed panoramas that suggest a John Ford Western filtered through Last Year at Marienbad. And through it all, the films’ breathtaking cinematic language provides an elegant but deeply ironic counterpoint to the arbitrary, all-pervasive violence. Jancsó has proven himself a prolific and eclectic auteur over a career spanning nearly six decades, but the four films featured in LACMA’s indispensable retrospective are cut from much the same, sublime cloth, together constituting a holy pantheon upon which the director’s formidable reputation largely rests. The Round-Up, the 1965 film that brought Jancsó to international attention, is set in a 19th-century detention camp where Austrian overseers perform a grim last tango with the Hungarian prisoners they randomly terrorize. The Round-Up establishes Jancsó’s premise that those with power are as pitiable as those they humiliate, but The Red and the White (1967) goes one step further, stripping codes and context from the brutal civil war of 1919 until it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between rival forces. Silence and Cry (1968), set in the same year as The Red and the White, is a more intimate and traditionally satisfying work, replacing the previous films’ disposable masses with a handful of recognizable characters anchored by the ambiguous relationship of two soldiers from opposing sides. This slightly warmer approach paves the way for 1971’s Red Psalm (Még kér a nép), which introduces color, music (almost all of the dialogue is sung) and a filmmaker who not only allows himself to finally take sides but occasionally teeters on the brink of agitprop. Red Psalm is the only one of these features not shot in glorious CinemaScope, but all of the films in this series qualify as essential viewing, and the chance to experience 35 mm prints on the big screen is a rare and beautiful thing. LACMA; through Fri., Oct. 24.

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