“Protect us from widowhood…protect us from immigration…Save us O Lord from starvation…Save us O Lord from the holes in our boots…”
‘Red Psalm’, directed by Miklós Jancsó in 1972, is a Hungarian movie set in a village in 1890. The villagers are rebelling against the feudal government and the film is made up of a series of long vignettes showing real and allegorical acts of revolution, interspersed with folk music, highly choreographed pageantry and quotes from socialist tracts and poetry. It’s light on plot, but rich and deep in symbolism. Oddly, and rather prosaically, I was reminded of ‘The Wicker Man’ with its strange mixture of diegetic folk music and agrarian ritual, but whereas the British movie also plays on the whodunit, detective and horror genres, ‘Red Psalm’ eschews any idea of formal narrative an becomes purer and more streamlined work of political idealism. As with his earlier film, ‘The Round-Up‘, Jancsó’s direction is distinctive, he uses long and elaborate takes in which the camera dances with the peasants and soldiers. A repeated piece of imagery is the cast moving in circles around the viewer, with the antagonists circling in the opposite direction. The use of sound is also a major part of the film, the noise of gunfire, or the equivalent sound of beating drums or cracking whips, often act as a bridge between the scenes, as a brutal but memorable form of incidental music and as an element of the wider political metaphors that Jancsó constructs. Highlights of the film include a spectacular and surprisingly visceral scene in which a church is set on fire and another scene, reminiscent of Kurosawa, in which a character kneels in a river flowing with blood. It’s not a film that you watch for a rollercoaster plot, but instead it is almost like a ballet, you watch it for the spectacle, the music and to appreciate the skill and commitment of the director.
Would I recommend it? Yes, but with reservations. It’s very abstract and if you’re not a fan of folk music or the dark, pastoral symbolism of movies like ‘The Wicker Man’ then you’ll get very bored very quickly. Having said that, watch it in a double-bill with Hardy’s film.