A scene from 'An American Rhapsody'
Courtesy Photo
***1/2 stars 107 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, August 24, 2001
Written & directed by Eva Gardos

Starring Nastassja Kinski, Tony Goldwyn, Scarlett Johansson, Kelly Endresz Banlaki, Mae Whitman, Balazs Galko, Zsuzsa Czinkoczi, Larisa Oleynik


Nicely photographed but totally character-driven, this film should play very well on the small screen. But don't watch it distracted. It's a nuance movie.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 01.22.2002


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Incredible, autobiographical story of immigrant girl's life told with powerful images, remarkable performances

By Rob Blackwelder

Film doesn't get any more passionately personal than writer-director Eva Gardos' semi-autobiographical "An American Rhapsody," the deeply stirring story of a Hungarian family torn apart by Cold War persecution, reunited through immigration and tested by the stubborn determination of a teenage daughter to explore her roots.

Gardos lived with guardians in rural Hungary until she was 6 because her aristocratic Budapest parents -- publishers by trade -- had to leave their infant daughter behind in order to escape arrest in the wake of the 1949 Communist coup d'etat.

Resettled in suburban Los Angeles after an arduous, dangerous trek across barbed-wired borders to Switzerland, her mother persevered by persistently petitioning every politician and aid organization she could find for help securing little Eva's transport to America. When she finally succeeded, the girl was spirited from the arms of the only family she'd known to be flown to a strange new world of subdivisions, televisions, big sisters and Elvis Presley songs.

Narrated from a decade later by Suzanne (Scarlett Johansson), Gordos' defiant and deliberative teenage alter-ego, "Rhapsody" is a fictionalized account of these events and others that followed as the little girl grows up troubled by the feeling that she didn't entirely belong in her "new" family, no matter how much adoration her parents heaped upon her.

A long-time editor, first-time director, Gordos demonstrates an amazing command of the cinematic language from the film's earliest scenes -- a black-and-white passage that follows Suzanne's parents (Tony Goldwyn and Nastassja Kinski) and 4-year-old sister on their escape from Hungary. This first act is subtly but deliberately shot to resemble "Casablanca" -- a subconscious pop-culture trigger that jump-starts the audience's recognition of the intrigue and danger involved in fleeing from a totalitarian government.

The effect is so powerful that Nastassja Kinski not only begins to look like Ingrid Bergman, she also gives an emotionally mighty, career-best performance that seriously rivals that legendary actress in its impact as she leaves her baby and runs for her life, pulling herself ahead through thickets of overwhelming guilt and fear.

Goldwyn (a talented director in his own right but best known as the evil yuppie from "Ghost") doesn't adopt any Bogey-ism, but he is equally resonant as the noble, courageous father. He plays beautifully the ambition and conviction that not only gets the family to safety in Vienna, but finds them owning their own home in America after just a few years of blue-collar blood, sweat and tears. This is also his best acting to date.

Gordos repeats her feat of instantly establishing an encompassing atmosphere when the action shifts to L.A. With one perfect, color stock footage shot of freeways, circa 1950s, the stage is set for yet another astonishing performance -- that of 8-year-old Kelly Endresz Banlaki as the young Suzanne who is finally reunited with her real family.

When this little girl gets off the airplane and pauses halfway down the stairs to the tarmac, comparing the faces that await her to a crumpled photograph given to her by her grandmother, I came close to tearing up -- and I'm one cynical movie critic.

Banlaki is sublimely natural as she adapts to the sunny, resplendent world of Southern California, staring out car windows in silent awe at the spruce neighborhoods, exploring the wonders of an electric kitchen and experiencing the joys of bubble gum and Coca-Cola. Yet there are always trace of homesickness in little Suzanne, and you can literally see a melancholy growing behind her eyes that will boil over into resentment when Johansson takes over the role.

However, here is where "American Rhapsody" loses its footing. There's no denying Johansson is an ideal young actress to call on for carrying Suzanne's vexed nature to its angst-riddled apex, but this decidedly Generation Y girl is unconvincing as an early '60s sock-hopper.

Suzanne constantly defies her extremely overprotective mother, smoking, sometimes drinking and frequently sneaking out her bedroom window to rendezvous with boys -- all of which is curiously intended as a primer for her longing to return to Hungary for some self-discovery. I just don't see the correlation.

When Suzanne does intrepidly travel by herself back to the country of her birth, visiting grandma and her guardians, Johansson doesn't adequately characterize her soul-searching. A few other foibles bedevil these last few chapters as well -- like the conspicuous but unexplained scarcity of Suzanne's sister in the story.

Yet even with the decline in the heretofore resounding depth in "An American Rhapsody," I still got choked up all over again at the movie's moving finale. Maybe I'm becoming a softie. But I rather think it more likely that this is just a remarkably potent film.


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