The ultimate nature of reality and our place in it has never been answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Philosophy has tried to tackle the issue many times over the last couple of millennia, but the only answer anyone’s ever been able to agree upon is that we have no idea whatsoever what reality even is. Religion only muddles the issue further by adding spiritual and celestial vagaries to the mix. Science isn’t much more help. Sure, it has established the technical details of how we see, hear, and feel. Yet, how does that solve anything? Knowing that what we experience is nothing more than a bunch of electrical impulses only tells us that we could be brains in jars for all we know.
Hungarian film “1” tackles this great mystery, so you certainly can’t accuse it of shying away from big ideas. Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, who also wrote the equally existential “Solaris,” the film doesn’t pull punches or try to give easy answers. In fact, it’s likely to leave a lot of viewers feeling as perplexed as the myriad of philosophers, theologians and scientists that have come before them.
When the entire collection of a bookstore specializing in rare works mysteriously disappears one night and is replaced by thousands of identical copies of the same strange book, simply called “1,” a secret government agency called the “Reality Defence Institute” arrive to investigate. They begin by examining each copy of “1,” dusting it for prints, sending out paper samples to be analyzed, even determining by the narrative language that whoever wrote it has a sense of humour. Then they turn their focus towards the four people who were in the building when the event happened. Surely they must have seen something? Books can’t disappear into, nor can they appear out of, thin air can they?
Vatican citizen Swan Tamel certainly seems a likely suspect. After all, it does seem awful convenient how he appeared, wandering around the store only minutes before the books arrived, even though the doors were locked for the night. He says he was just looking around when he realized he was trapped inside, but there’s something weird about the guy, always smiling as if he knows what you’re about to say and he expects everything you’re about to do. If anyone knows what’s really going on he’s our man, or is he?
Less likely is slow-witted janitor Agnes Andersen, although he was the only one to be present when all the books were replaced and seems to have been driven crazy by the sight of it. If anyone has seen anything it’s him. What did he see though?
Least likely are millionaire owner Al F. Evenson and his mistress Maya Satin. Yet, as the film progresses, even they start to seem connected to the whole thing.
RDI Special Agent Phil Pitch is convinced that the four know more than they will admit and has them all carted away to a “detainment center” where tests involving drugs and shock therapy are performed to determine whether or not they’re telling the truth.
The book that appeared, you see, is no mere book, it’s a series of charts and graphs and text that allows the reader to visualize the whole of humanity all at once. To see reality from the perspective of a grand author, perhaps even to step into his shoes so to speak. Heady stuff to be sure. Not just that, but it seems as if it’s found its way into the hands of the public and is driving people insane. There are riots and genocides and mass suicides.
If I was to single out one major problem, it’s that the third act loses some of the really awe inspiring momentum of the first and second. It also loses focus and meanders a bit too much so that when the ending comes, it does so in a thematic fog that’s so thick that I get the feeling the message it’s trying to convey is as ethereal and tenuous as the film’s reality may be.
“1” will be playing at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 20th and July 22nd.