Nice! I wonder how many thousand percentage points of improvement this will be over the Facets release.
The Facets disc is in fact one of their better ones, but that only translates as "you'd probably be quite pleased if you bought it on VHS in the 1990s". The subtitles are in sync, which is a major advance for them, but the analogue tape master has given it a very flat, televisual appearance which I'm sure isn't anywhere close to what Jancsó intended.
I'm certainly willing to bet that this negative IMDB review was derived from the Facets version:
This movie lacks originality. The script is poor, the budget is probably less than that of a high school play, the costumes look horrendous, the performers are stiff as nails, the dialog is numb, the landscape is barren, the cinematography is amateur, the props look like they are about to fall apart, and the pace is slower than drying paint. It was made in 1974, but seems as though it was made in the 1940's and in someone's backyard.
...although it's still ludicrous: you don't get hundreds of horses into a film with the budget of a high school play! And the "barren landscape" is of course the great Hungarian puszta
, the setting for many of Jancsó's major masterpieces.
Hopefully my own review is a bit more nuanced:
There was always something inevitable about Miklós Jancsó’s Electra My Love (a literal translation of the Hungarian Szerelmem, Elektra, though it’s also known as Elektreia). In the films from The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968) to Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971), he had been refining an approach to film that could best be described as ritualised, his characters more akin to mythological archetypes than flesh-and-blood humans. And since Jancsó’s earlier work had more than their fair share of moments resembling Greek tragedy, what could be more natural than adapting an ancient Greek source?
In fact, Jancsó’s film was derived from László Gyurkó’s stage play, which offered a radical re-reading of the ancient Elektra myth. Jancsó in turn transports it to his beloved puszta, and while the film initially seems to be set in a timeless never-never land, by the end the costumes and music are recognisably Hungarian. It marks the most extreme refinement of his post-Confrontation style: there are just eight principal shots, each lasting an entire reel of film, with four additional fill-in shots making up a total only just scraping double figures.
As with Red Psalm, the narrative plays second fiddle to everything else, so it’s worth outlining in full – this is not the kind of film where spoilers matter. At a fifteenth-anniversary commemoration of her father Agamemnon’s death, Electra (Mari Törőcsik) is told by her younger sister Chrisothemis (Gabi Jobba) to put it behind her and move on. Electra indignantly replies that she must never forget the primary reason for her opposition to the tyrant Aegisthus (József Madaras). A mere woman, she cannot raise a hand against him herself, but she lives in hope that her exiled brother Orestes will return. Aegisthus plays various psychological games with her, in an attempt to convince her that Orestes is dead, but when he turns out to be alive, his appearance inspires the people to overthrow Aegisthus. After killing Aegisthus and his supporters, Orestes and Electra die and are resurrected, free to foment revolution elsewhere.
Jancsó’s hyperstylised approach sets the protagonists against a backdrop of not only the puszta but some five hundred extras. Their intricately plotted movements run through every scene, and the big set-pieces are closer to ritual theatre than cinema. Though there’s nothing quite as formally astonishing as the massacre towards the end of Red Psalm, the film is bursting with memorable images: the line of women wending their way round a spiral path around a mount studded with candles, Orestes running through a sea of prone bodies, the usurped Aegisthus treated as a plaything by being forced to balance on a large ball (which in turn encapsulates his own shaky hold on both power and, ultimately, life), the deliberately anachronistic (and clearly symbolic) red helicopter that descends like a firebird at the end to carry Electra and Orestes off, and seemingly endless lines of horses galloping across the screen from the opening to the closing seconds.
There are plenty of contemporary political allegories to be drawn. The frequent use of Hungarian folksong (performed onscreen) invites us to read the film as a portrait of Hungary under rulers as ruthless yet insecure as Aegisthus (apparently Gyurkó’s play was explicitly inspired by the Stalinist era. When Aegisthus proclaims a Feast of Truth, encouraging his subjects to offer direct criticism without fear of reprisal, they choose unstinting sycophancy – possibly aware that when Mao tried a similar tactic in the late 1950s, his assurances proved worthless. Aegisthus relies both on terror (his people are constantly surrounded by horsemen and whip-wielding thugs) and his subjects’ reluctance to take decisive action. However, he in turn feels powerless to discipline Electra, unless given a good excuse. When he is provided with one, such as her murder of the messenger bearing news of Orestes’ death, he takes the politically canny step of proclaiming that everyone is equal under the law, thus neatly hoisting Electra (who opens the film with a lament that without consistently-applied law, civilisation is impossible) with her own petard.
As in Red Psalm, János Kende’s camera is constantly zooming from long shot to close-up, though the overall pace is statelier, the compositions more measured, the complex blocking more precise, the movements more intricately choreographed. Dance is even more central to the film’s mode of expression than was the case earlier, and is often the primary means through which Electra communicates with her followers: the dialogue is not so much spoken as declaimed in a manner not unlike authentic Greek theatre. When Aegisthus is finally killed by Orestes, Béla Bartók’s pounding piano piece Allegro barbaro (the title of which Jancsó would later adopt for a 1978 film) implicitly proclaims the triumph of the people over the oppressor via its folksong roots.
In Red Psalm, revolution is seen as a sadly necessary corrective to centuries of exploitation by the ruling classes, with any violence to be deeply regretted. By contrast, Electra herself ends up a militant revolutionary, advocating bloody revenge as a legitimate end in itself, the people justified in expressing their hatred as hatred, if their ultimate aims are the creation of a wholly equal society. It’s an uncompromisingly absolutist vision that was hard to sustain even in 1974, and subsequent events (the journey from idealism to terrorism taken by the Red Brigades in Jancsó’s adopted Italy, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq) have shown that it’s almost invariably unsustainable when applied in practice. Which may well be why Jancsó resorted to increasingly stylised treatments in the first place: practice was already sharply deviating from theory.