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By James Teitelbaum | November 3, 2009

Who could have predicted that the latest trend in international cinema would be musicals about mid-century teens behind the iron curtain rebelling by adopting the mannerisms of American rock-n-rollers? Take a tip, Daddy-O and get hip, because the Chicago International Film Festival was loaded with such features this year.

Well, ok, there were only two, but the similarity between “Made in Hungaria” and “Hipsters” is striking. Maybe it isn’t fair to directly compare the two films, but a fast run-down might yield the following: “Hungaria” is less colorful and less exaggerated in its production and costume design than “Hipsters.” The music is more Jerry Lee Lewis, scrappy proto-rock n’ roll, versus the more elaborate arrangements heard in “Hipsters.” “Hungaria” has more solid belly laughs than its more visible competitor (example: “Peeeerrrrrr-kins”…see it). And while “Hipsters” was based loosely on the stilyagi subculture that did really thrive in 1955 Russia, “Made In Hungaria” is specifically based on the true life story of a specific individual: Miklós (Miki) Fenyo. “Made In Hungaria” was also a stage musical for seven years before being brought to the silver screen.

It is the dawn of the 1960s. Miki (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) has spent four years in the U.S. with his parents, and isn’t too pleased at the prospect returning to the newly-communist Hungary. In America, he has acquired a bottle of Jack Daniels, a lighter with a picture of Elvis on it, and the ability to entertain and play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. In Miki’s absence, a kid named Rone Csipu (Iván Fenyö) has risen to the top of the teen scene, and his rugged looks and guitar skills have the girls swooning. Never mind that he is also a jewel thief with a rather unique m.o. Csipu doesn’t like Miki storming his turf – he likes being the big man on campus.

Someone else dislikes Miki’s big homecoming splash: Arpad Bigali (Péter Scherer), the ineffectual minder of the local youth community. Bigali tries to smooth things over by hooking his nerdy and talentless son up with Miki, but sonny-boy is much too square to play with the cool kids. In turn, Csipu doesn’t want any part of the usurper Miki’s overtures towards friendship. As the film speeds towards the inevitable talent show sequence, tensions mount between Miki and Csipu, between Miki and Bigali, between Miki and his parents, between Miki and his sweetie, and between Miki and the communist government. The kid who laments “I just want to make music and fall in love” can’t get a break.

So, as is the case with “Hipsters,” there’s not much new here: being a teen and having your forays into self expression squashed by communists is a scenario that everyone has been through (except perhaps the part about the commies). There have been countless films dealing with the issue of teen rebellion as phase in life’s journey, going all the way back to “Rebel Without a Cause” and beyond. Few, however, have been made in Hungary. This spirited take on the old story is indeed filled with rockin’ music, beautiful women, good laughs (the burning piano… the four stiff east German girls who end up… well, you’ll see), and lively production numbers (a few which feel gratuitous, but which are none the less enjoyable).

What interested me the most about his film was a fascinating subtext: the older generation trying to keep the youth in-line is more or less a given. In this case, every time the kids start dancing, clothes come off, and riots or orgies seem to ensue. On one hand, the community leaders seem to be using their tool Bigali to attempt to tame the kids. However, on the other hand, there is a hint here that the older generation are the true rebels: are they actually encouraging these kids to undermine the communists, to express their freedom, to have rebel babies, and to grow up dissatisfied with the current state of Hungarian politics? The more tightly the adults try to restrain the kids, the more the kids push back. Did I sense that the real rebellion here, the quiet, subtle, almost imperceptible one, was among the adults pulling the strings, quietly planting the seeds of social change by fanning the flames of rebellion in the youth?

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