The Witman Boys is an example of subtlety and nuance building slowly to a crescendo through the entirety of a film. It is a film which doesn’t need sensationalism to convey delinquency or to make it seem palpable, and, in fact, possible. The film begins almost immediately with the boys losing their father. This is an inciting incident if I ever saw one. From thereon out the boys start to question everything and their mother becomes even more distant than it seems she was before.
Erno starts to question his older brother, Janos, about death and their bond becomes solidified. Erno shows a need to follow regardless of where Janos leads him. Incidents build themselves up slowl, and things connect to one another in this film as you watch it. Immediately following their father’s death the boys don’t eat, then they leave the dinner table, and soon they are not home at all. They cruelly interact with animals – first they hear of dissection, witness it, and then perform the act. And so on. Everything is in stages most things following the rule of three at least.
What is most effective about the film is that what is most disturbing is usually never seen, but merely implied. An action is begun but not completed, or done off-screen. This is a film, and a rare one, which realizes that the audience participates and can use its imagination to fill in the blanks. Director Janos Szasz saves his visuals for things that are absolutely necessary and that will shock the audience.
The boys, Szabolcs Gergerly and Alpár Fogarasi, are both quite good but what makes the movie work is a compelling and strong actress as the distant mother, which this film has in Maia Morgenstern. Best known for playing Mary in The Passion of the Christ, she is fantastic in this role and really elevates the films level.
Visually the film is compelling from the beginning. Its simple establishing shots, both day and night of the outside of their house, are enhanced by haze and fog. When they are in the cemetery talking to the owl the scenes are quasi-expressionistic in the wide shots and the scenes in the attic are always luminescent and rich.
The only area where the film really suffers is after Janos meets Irén his obsession with her and his recruitment of Erno to join in the obsession dominated the entire film, to its detriment. The obsession is natural but the pace becomes slowed and things get a little bogged down. The climax seems a little delayed.
Still, overall, it is a very good film that you should see should you have a chance. It is a decent primer for Hungarian cinema – a pretty accessible title that still gives some insight on the culture, philosophy and filmmaking aesthetic of the nation.