Adoption

01/10/2010

Hungary / 1975 / Hungarian

Directed by Márta Mészáros

With Katalin Berek, Gyöngyvér Vigh, Péter Fried

Still from 'Adoption'Kata is a middle-aged factory worker who lives alone in a small town nearby a boarding school for emotionally disturbed girls. She is dating a married man, the ineffectual Sanyi, who grows apprehensive at her desire to have a baby and rear it by herself. Lacking much of the support system necessary for raising a child, she puts her feelings and ambition on hold, grasping at the hope that a child will come into her life. Meanwhile she begins a friendship with one of the teenaged girls from the school who loiters around her house.

The girl, Anna, initially wants simply a place to clandestinely meet with her boyfriend and takes a room at Kata’s house. But she winds up becoming very close with the older woman. When the doctors at the school relocate Anna due to her rebellious behavior, Kata makes an effort to track her down and to fight the system on her behalf. She intervenes with the girl’s parents, helping them to come to an agreement wherein they allow their daughter to get married to the boyfriend, thereby freeing her from the cycle of institutionalization that has held her for most of her life.

The relationship between the two women develops subtly abusive undertones, which pushes Anna away and hints at Kata’s possibly strict upbringing – or just growing up as a woman in an authoritarian state. But she does not really wish for Anna to become her child, and that, in spite of the title’s inference, is not at all what develops. Their friendship is more one of equality, as Kata finds a kindred spirit in the preternaturally dispassionate, sometimes disconnected young woman. Both characters require freedom, in their own ways, and rebel against a narrowly defined concept of womanhood in a very systematized culture.

Still from 'Adoption'But it is sad, angering, and altogether spot-on that Anna and Kata want marriage and a baby, respectively, to realize their personal autonomy. On one level the two characters are inspiring and refreshing, on another and more profound level, abjectly pathetic. Anna needs a husband to assume the role that her parents, and then the institutions, have played in her life. Only then, does she imagine, will she be taken out of the system. In the big picture, though there is no escape. Kata already has agency of a sort, gotten on her own terms, the rewards for her efforts being a mind-numbing job, a bedraggled love affair, and a little bit of free time to pursue her artistic hobbies. Having a child in her life seems like a thinly-veiled bid for legitimacy, in a Hegelian sense – a justification of one’s existence in an overpoweringly family-centric environment. But it takes with it a certain declaration of individuality, as she has to break through numerous cultural barriers that limit her.

One can  nearly inhale the sharp Winter’s air through the film’s clouded patina. It’s atmosphere is jaded and sober, nonetheless rendering the characters affectionately, with patient tones. Kata’s unprepossessing demeanor is what makes her a compelling character. Her need to be entirely self-determining puts her at odds with her society, one that unites, in equal measure, old-fashioned customs with modern and depersonalizing doctrine. She comes off as hardened by the effort, made over half a lifetime, just to be her own person. She is, as a result, unlikable and modest in her goals, a Soviet reduction of the strong female lead.

Still from 'Adoption'In Adoption, director Mészáros uses two forceful and unorthodox characters to make an incisive social commentary about the personal degradation that is the fallout of strict normalcy. She is calling out the post-Stalinist society as lacking in progressiveness, as the mores that limit women’s options outside of marriage are still very much in place, helped by socialist institutions. Kata seems hesitant to realize her goals, and as a result they seem almost pitiable, regardless of what a large step adopting a child is. She is already a functioning if not dedicated worker, an upstanding and sympathetic person. What more could she want for herself? Anna provides an interesting foil because she shows similar flashes of free thought and complexity, although from the beginning she has never had a chance to flourish, and will never. Success in adopting a baby could be considered proof of Kata’s strength and determination, but upon a greater familiarity with the society and system in which she and Anna live, it appears as but a meager battle won in the depths of a much wider galaxy of confounded emotions and suppressed desires.

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