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Katalin Moldovai Without Air Review


Without Air | 2023 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Without Air | 2023 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

A Teacher Fights For Her Job In Katalin Moldovai’s Simmering Indictment of Hungary’s Culture Wars

Katalin Moldovai Without Air ReviewAgnieszka Holland’s largely forgotten (and quite awful) 1995 biopic Total Eclipse is perhaps best remembered for its lead performance by rising star Leonardo DiCaprio playing famed poet Arthur Rimbaud with a heavy American accent. Yet, nearly thirty years later, the film unexpectedly sets off a scandal in Katalin Moldovais captivating and simmering feature debut Without Air in which a high school teacher’s fight to save her job serves as a pointed political indictment of a country so focused on stirring up cultural firestorms that it ignores the real issues that threaten its economic and ecological future.

In Ana’s (Ágnes Krasznahorkai) classroom, she teachers literature as an open dialogue, with conversation and discussion as important as the texts they read. The students love her, and seemingly so do her colleagues, until one day a parent lodges a complaint with Eva (Tünde Skovrán), the school’s principal. After a lesson about Rimbaud, Ana had recommended Total Eclipse as optional followup material. But when Viktor’s (Soma Sándor) father catches a glimpse of what his son is watching at home — most likely popping his head in the room when DiCaprio and David Thewlis are locking lips — an investigation is started, ethics committees are formed, and Ana finds herself pulled into an increasingly Kafka-esque quagmire.

Initially, Eva sees the matter as a harmless annoyance, hoping that assuring Viktor’s father that Ana’s conduct will be addressed will sweep everything under the rug. But when the issue persists, pressures start to mount, as the timing couldn’t be worse. Eva is also readying the school’s 150th anniversary, a celebration that’s just weeks away that will involve the town’s mayor and hopefully drum up funding for a new gymnasium. It’s also a headache for Ana who has already put off a vacation to help with the occasion. On top of that, she’s managing an aging mother who needs more help, while trying to maintain a relationship with her boyfriend Bofond (Bokor Barna), who has found steady employment abroad with the opportunity of a promotion after being unable to find well-paying and meaningful work at home.

Katalin Moldovai Without Air Review

The film puts a lot up on the chalkboard to deal with but the measured script, co-written by Moldovai and Zita Palóczi, draws clear lines around the escalating tangles of bureaucracy Ana finds herself in. The growing absurdity of the situation as the administration draws out the process (and Ana forces an appeal) is counterbalanced by the film’s levelheaded spirit. Without Air is an angry film but its bite is made all the sharper as it simply lays bare the hostile senseless of grinding a long-serving teacher through a process that’s only designed to find fault, and mete out discipline, while feinting concerns about student welfare. The beautiful cinematography by András Táborosi — all earth tones; burnt sienna, goldenrod, sky blue — also grounds the film while speaking to its larger concerns.

Climate change is just one of the issues hovering at the edges of Without Air. As Ana drives to work, reports about rising temperatures and increasingly destructive storms pass across the radio airwaves. Bofond’s situation — in which he must make a decision about staying away more permanently — speaks to the lack of opportunities within Hungary. These will be the very real and pressing concerns Hungary in the years and decades ahead, yet as Moldovai quietly illustrates with wry irony, there’s no mobilization around them that matches the speed when a teacher may be “corrupting” the values of 17 year-olds.

“Is this film dangerous? You have seen the film, haven’t you?” Ana asks the committee deciding her fate. Of course, they haven’t actually watched Total Eclipse, but it’s also a question Moldovai might be readying about her own film in advance of the conversation it’s sure to stir up when it’s released in Hungary. With its restrained, yet white-knuckle fury, Without Air makes an earnest argument that compassion and acceptance — of everyone, of every stripe — might be most valuable tool the next generation needs to survive and help each other when the world is literally on fire.

Reviewed on September 10th at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival – Discovery Programme. 105 Mins


Kevin Jagernauth is a Montreal-based film critic and writer. Kevin has written professionally about music and film for over 15 years, most prominently as Managing Editor of The Playlist, where he continues to contribute reviews, and he has recently joined The Film Verdict as a Contributing Critic. Kevin has attended and covered a wide range of festivals including Cannes, TIFF, Fantasia, Savannah, and more. On a consultative basis, Kevin provides script coverage for feature-length independent and international films. He is also the co-founder and co-programmer of Kopfkino, a monthly screening series of cult classics and contemporary favorites that ran from 2017-2020 in Montreal.

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