Title: Sunshine

Release Date:  2000

Nationality and Language: Uk/Canada/Hungary/Germany:  English

Running time: about 180 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company:  Paramount Classics, Alliance-Atlantis Pictures, Serendipity

Director; Writer:  Istvan Szabo,  music by Maurice Jarre


Cast:   Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Welsz, Jennifer Ehle, Deborah Unger, Molly Parker, William Hurt

Technical: 1.6 to 1, Digital   CD on Milan records 7313835992-2

Relevance to doaskdotell site: epic historical film-making with emphasis on freedom



            “The most important virtue is to see clearly and to be seen clearly.”

            Welcome back to epic filmmaking, on the scale of earlier films like Dr. Zhivago and Reds.  I don’t’ know why this hasn’t been marketed for wider studio release. Today’s younger audiences don’t realize what happened in the generations that led to today’s prosperity.  The audience, when I saw this film at the Uptown in Minneapolis, was older.

            The story follows three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, Sonnenschein (“Sunshine”) through three male protagonists, all played by Ralph Fiennes., as narrated by the youngest of the three men who first tells the story of his grandfather and father before his own.  The three generations dealt with the corruption fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, leading to the shell-shock of World War I, to the Nazi era and the concentration camps, to Stalin and the crushing of the Hungarian revolt in 1956.  In all three stories the Fiennes character compromises somewhat with his sense of morality in order to “fit in” and enjoy the trappings of success, only to have to deal with the consequences of his choice.

            The oldest Sonnenschein, having brought up his siblings after his father was killed in accident, gets his doctor of laws and joins the establishment as a judge, but only after changing the family name to a Hungarian one.  Much is made of the “liberal” empire and of fitting in, overlooking the corruption, while the brother brings risk to the family by his outspoken socialist activities. Despite the “liberalism,” early 2-th Century Europe had tremendous differences between the well-to-do and the poor.  Fiennes always notices a twang of discomfort in himself, but goes a long and gradually becomes corrupted. In the second episode, the protagonist becomes a fencer at the 1936 Olympics, but only after learning to fence left-handed and to take himself the way he is.  He changes his religion to Catholicism, and is apparently exempt from all the anti-Jewish laws, which were designed to keep the Jews out of a position to write and publish and exert cultural influence as well as most other professions.  But the Nazis eventually come after him anyway, and in a chilling scene he is tortured, while maintaining his identity and success, and frozen to death inside a mummy created by freezing rain as he hangs from a pole.

            The youngest one becomes a policeman in iron curtain Hungary, but then becomes disenchanted when asked to hunt down fellow Jews.  He finally participates in the 1956 revolt and is imprisoned.  After getting out, he changes his name back to Sonnenschein and walks the quaint streets with pride.

            The treatment of entrenched anti-Semitism reminds me of the cultural attitude towards gays today in some people.  The suggestion is constantly made that the Jews somehow disrupt the cultural order with their sophistry and with their ability to create a cohesive intellectual culture at tugs at the society around it.  The Jews are also accused of cultural “freeloading,” of demeaning average working people.  Indeed, the eldest Sonnenschein  warns his sons of intellectual conceit, of feeling superior because one knows more of the interconnections of things than do average people. Personal ambition must be tempered by allegiance to God.  And another question remains: do people really get their identity from their cultural group, or identity something developed within the self, and when is the sense of self inappropriate or disruptive to the community?

            This film has been criticized for simply presenting too much history for three hours, but I think that it tells a cohesive, Do Ask Do Tell-type epic mutliple-decade story about the evolution of personal identity against a background of rapidly evolving political culture.  This is filmmaking in the tradition of Spielberg and even Ken Burns.  One revolution will destroy what went before it, pretend to implement moral answers based on a new ideology, and then institute its own system of corruption and privilege.  Only the embracement individual freedom—as proclaimed by Mel Gibson at the end of BraveHeart, can really let moral order settle out.

            The casting of Ralph Fiennes as all three characters does have the effect of merging them into one soul with successive incarnations, a kind of vicarious immortality. The viewer develops a strong rooting interest (the kind literary or movie agents like to see for box office prospects) only for the last character, when he is willing to drop the charade of being something he is not or speaking for something he really does not believe, yet that is more a perception of hindsight.  The demands of “real life” make a lot out of adaptive choices.

            The music score by Maurice Jarre plays through my head frequently. Some of it appears to be based on the obscure f-minor piano Fantasy by Franz Schubert (not to be confused with the Wanderer Fantasy, which I have not been able to locate yet on CD.


There is a science-fiction movie by this name, directed by Danny Boyle, coming from Fox Searchlight in the fall of 2007; no relation.  

Related reviews: Before Night Falls; An American Rhapsody; Time Regained   Sunshine (Boyle)


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