Creative historyThere’s only one thing that’s hugely, almost comically ironic about Istvan Szabo’s new movie–its title. Sunshine is about a Hungarian Jewish family and its travails during much of the 20th century. The clan, which was originally called Sonnenschein, made its fortune brewing and selling a tonic called “A Taste of Sunshine.” Subsequent to that Belle Epoque bonanza, though, its fortunes were much like those of other Middle European Jews of their time: “Sunshiny” is the very last metaphor you’d apply.

A big, well-packaged, unapologetically middlebrow and trying-hard-to-be mainstream history tour, Sunshine turns on threes: it lasts three hours; it focuses on three generations of Sonnenscheins as they endure three poisonous authoritarian regimes (imperial, Nazi and Stalinist); and stars Ralph Fiennes in three successive lead roles. Yes, I know Ralph isn’t the least bit Magyar, even in triplicate. But then neither are William Hurt, Rosemary Harris, Jennifer Ehle, Miriam Margolyes and many of the film’s other stars.

You may recall an era when several vital (if largely state-subsidized) national cinemas in Eastern Europe turned out movies that dealt with local themes using local actors speaking the local languages and dialects. That type of cinema no longer exists on any significant scale. What we see now, in the erstwhile Eastern bloc as elsewhere across the globe, are commercial imperatives that recall the time when “international co-production” was a dread and risible term: The language must be English, the actors must be international stars and the cultural reference points must be broad enough not to provoke frowns of puzzlement in Dubuque or (worse) Burbank. So much for the diversity allowed by the Pax Hollywoodiana. (But hey, at least Sunshine doesn’t star John Malkovich, who now qualifies as postmodernity’s very own Horst Buchholz or Tony Quinn.)

Given these constraints, which have turned many a European movie into unwatchable goulashes, Szabo acquits himself remarkably well. Sunshine may not be notably original, or indigenous in the sense of foreign films past, but its storytelling skills are sure and vigorous, and its impassioned sense of history’s importance never falters. Instead of being a standard tale of Jewish struggles in the past century, it is an account of Hungarian history as refracted through the prism of a proud bourgeois Jewish family. Indeed, the problems endured by the Sonnenscheins might not have been so acute if they hadn’t been such good, loyal Hungarians.

The three roles played by Fiennes chart a course through the perilous and ultimately tragic seas of assimilation. Initial protagonist Ignatz Sonnenschein, after deciding not to follow the family magic-elixir trade despite the remonstrations of his patient, God-fearing father (a very nice performance by David de Keyser), elects to become a lawyer, and chooses to change his surname to Sors to rise in his profession. Yet his loyalty to the doomed Austro-Hungarian monarchy only brings him a miserable decline. His son Adam goes even further to ingratiate himself and falls even harder. An Olympic fencer, he converts to Christianity–“Jesus himself converted,” he’s advised–to further his social advance and ends up murdered in a concentration camp, because he refuses to admit to being anything other than a Hungarian national hero, which of course he is.

Adam’s son Ivan mutely witnesses his father’s slaughter and survives the Nazi horror to become a Stalinist security operative in Communist Hungary. Told that the avuncular officer who’s been his mentor (Hurt) is a Zionist agent and that he must conduct the investigation, Ivan commits the same moral crime he did in the concentration camp: stands by passively to save his own skin, while injury is rained on an innocent man he should defend.

This isn’t the drama’s end, but it is the Sonnenscheins’ spiritual nadir, and it’s a far more subtly horrendous one than most similar films manage–indeed so horrendous as to pose the question of how we can adequately process it. Ultimately, I found myself missing the voice of Ignatz’s devout father, who could read the world’s trials with sobering clarity by seeing them as the works of God. Secular literatures, in dispensing with that interpretative lens, put a sometimes overwhelming responsibility on the understanding of both author and reader, and we are poorer for it. But Szabo recognizes the cruel extremes provoked by the abandonment of faith–in historical terms, the perils of such extremism is his main theme–and he carefully avoids them himself. Just as Sunshine doesn’t stew in recrimination, neither does it culminate in self-loathing.

Additionally, the story has a domestic/sexual aspect that provides a balancing set of troubles. Ignatz, to his mother’s (Margolyes) deep consternation, insists on marrying his high-spirited cousin Valerie, who eventually betrays him but lives to become the family’s moral polestar. (She’s played by Ehle as a young woman, then by Harris.) In the next generation, Adam’s vanity leads him into a dangerous liaison with his brother’s neurotic wife (Rachel Weisz). When it’s Ivan’s turn, he continues the male Sonnenscheins’ hapless romantic tradition by having an affair with a woman (Deborah Kara Unger) who clearly will never leave her kids and powerful husband.

Whether it be Roots or Heimat, 1900 or The Godfather, such history-conscious, multigenerational family epics all have the built-in fascinations of blood, speculation (“might it have been different?”) and narrative expanse. Szabo’s version has some additional assets as well. Curiously, Ralph Fiennes isn’t chief among them. Though his continuous presence and various reappearances give the film an odd sort of human anchor, his work in three roles makes you realize that his range simply isn’t that great; apart from their styles in facial hair (beard, mustache, clean shaven: the century in a shaving mirror) and a few superficial mannerisms, his three Sonnenscheins remain largely–and sometimes rather spookily–undifferentiated.

Szabo’s notable skills with actors come to the fore, however, in many other performances, especially the pairing of Harris and Ehle (mother and daughter in real life) as Valerie at different ages. Valerie is supposed to be vibrant, beautiful and idiosyncratic, and these extraordinary actresses make her that in spades. Also, weirdo though he may be, William Hurt manages another shrewdly unsettling character study as the upright officer betrayed by Ivan.

Actors, of course, connect us to Szabo’s most famous character, the diabolical opportunist at the center of Mephisto, a living emblem of the guilty compromises that often accompany survival in a vicious regime. Yet if Szabo is a second- rather than a first-rate artist, that’s partly due to his inability or unwillingness to link the central failing of his characters to his own creative history. Part of a large wave of talented Hungarian directors that arose in the ’60s (Miklos Jansco, et al.), Szabo is that generation’s only real survivor in terms of international success. While much of his renown is deserved, it has been earned by a kind of assimilation that must finally remind us of the Sonnenscheins. This correlation at once gives Sunshine its power, its conviction and its evasiveness.

Where is Roger Corman when you need him? Or do I mean Busby Berkeley? Actually, the most appropriate name here is Doug Liman. In the early scenes of Liman’s Go, one of last year’s most underrated movies, when the young characters go off to a rave in an abandoned building, the film itself leaps a swooning, Roman candle visual mode that perfectly captures the event’s druggy sensory onslaught. It’s maybe the most lyrical and purely beautiful evocation of psychedelia I’ve ever seen, and it works so well because of Liman’s integral sense of mood, composition and kinetic cutting.

In contrast, Greg Harrison’s Groove has the grace of an overweight traffic cop trying to be Balanchine. Set just before and during a San Francisco rave that spans a single night, the low-budget film obviously means to pay tribute to (OK, and maybe cash in on) current rave culture, but it’s so flat-footed in every way that the homage ends up feeling like an insult. I can’t imagine many ravesters will view it as anything but a rip, and noninitiates will be bored to distraction.

Combining the worst traits of old-style exploitation filmmaking (minus the fun) with those of Sundance-style indiedom, Groove lurches beyond ersatz hipness into total cluelessness. A la American Graffiti and the like, its story intercuts between several sets of characters; alas, these kids are all vapid, utterly uninteresting and played with grating amateurishness. I’ll admit that I find this sort of “music” mostly a noxious, indistinguishable drone, but its fans hardly stand to be pleased by the film, which never lingers on a dance scene for than 15 or 20 seconds before cutting away to its inane characters and their tedious little melodramas.

Given the choice, I would take torture-by-music–except that Harrison hasn’t a clue how to shoot people dancing. Static, dark long shots of writhing bodies and hands being flung in the air? Over and over? Puh-lease. Doug Liman’s rave in Go had such poetry and brilliance that I would have spent the whole movie there. But 10 minutes is too much in Groove. EndBlock