Movie Review: Gloomy Sunday (1999)

GloomyThumbby Brad Nelson
Warning: There is a better than one-in-two chance that you will want to kill yourself after (or even during) reading this review.

Gloomy Sunday is centered around a restaurant, its owner, and a couple of his friends in 1930’s Budapest. An ill wind is blowing, and it’s not from the over-stuffed meat rolls.

Life and love drift freely, and sometimes painfully, across and through three people, one of whom is a free-spirited drop-dead gorgeous Hungarian (who you do get to see naked, just for the record), played by the drop-dead gorgeous Erika Marozsán (Ilona). The other two characters are a rather secular Jewish restaurateur (László), and a young piano player/composer (András) who has a penchant for writing beautiful, but gloomy, compositions.

Early in the movie, András debuts a killer song that he plays in the restaurant (László runs one of those classy joints that has live music) that eventually goes to the top of the charts. And it really is a killer song. People are listening to this lovely, but pathos-filled, song and offing themselves at an alarming rate (something even Debby Boone couldn’t do with “You Light Up My Life”).

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Nazis eventually move in and it’s definitely not party time if you’re a Jewish restaurateur. Fortunately, László had earlier befriended a German businessman before the war (Herr Wieck, played by Rolf Becker) who is of some assistance now that he is an SS Colonel overseeing The Final Solution in that region (and part of that solution is lusting after Ilona…but who isn’t?).

But that plot description doesn’t begin to touch the artistry of this movie or its interweaving of tragic and gentle themes. Surely this movie is about, in part, the interplay between the beauty of human existence and the tragedy of it as well. Sometimes life hands you a meat roll (or Ilona) or it hands you a bunch of SS Nazis out to enforce a Final Solution.

The Jewish restaurant owner himself has no ideology other than keeping his restaurant open and making a buck. And he’s a splendid chap, friendly, optimistic, and charming. His girl (well, it’s kinda-sorta his girl…that’s a negotiable premise from moment to moment) is happy to just work and to love.

And the piano player/composer is happy just to write and play gloomy music. His greatest concern is over the angst caused by the blood-money he receives via royalties for a song that is killing so many people. (I’m sure this is some kind of foreshadowing of the Final Solution, or it could be an homage to that Monty Python sketch about the world’s most lethal joke.)

All in all, you probably don’t have much of an idea what this movie is about from the above description. But let it be said that it is well-acted, well-directed, and well-photographed. It’s quality through and through. And you get Nazis. What’s not to like?

I give it 3 viles of heart medicine out of 5. This is one of the better multi-culti arthouse foreign films that I’ve seen of late. It has a small-town appeal and a low ADHD factor, although it still has plenty of warm interest. Think Chocolat but with Nazis. Anything I’ve missed about the picture I’m sure Ed will be glad to fill  in. • (3134 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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17 Responses to Movie Review: Gloomy Sunday (1999)

  1. Kung Fu Zu says:

    Ah, those maudlin Magyars. For a 1937 Hungarian slant on Budapest directed from a German/American Jewish point of view, see “The Shop Around the Corner”. Much more pleasant all round.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Is that the one with Jimmy Stewart? Okay, I’ll add that to my movie list. 🙂 Thanks.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:

        Yup. It reminds me more than a little my time in Vienna.

        The city was still very old fashioned. There were no McDonnell’s or skyscrapers (although U.N. City was built shortly thereafter). I believe the Hotel Regina was the tallest building and it as maybe 15 or so floors.

        There were thousands of war widows, and the joke was that most were WWI war widows.

        You could go into any of the dozens of cafe’s and find a different atmosphere in each. The whole ambiance was as if Franz Joseph had only recently died. (He died during WWI)

        What a different time.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Well, now I’m just going to have to watch it and report back. If I think it’s good enough, I’ll do a review.

  2. Ed Cottingham says:

    Wow Brad, you really jump on a thing. And you did a great review. I won’t attempt to gild the lily!

    P.S. I guess I will say that I will keep a wary eye on you for unmarked sarcasm since I read your sentence “Fortunately, László had earlier befriended a German businessman before the war (Herr Wieck, played by Rolf Becker) who is of some assistance now that he is an SS Colonel overseeing The Final Solution…”

    SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER >> It took the lovely Ilona half a century, but she was finally able to murder this “helpful” Nazi.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thanks, Ed. And in the case of the Kraut, it wasn’t sarcasm as much as just not wanting to give away anything. There is always that tension there with this animalistic Kraut. You don’t know what he’s apt to do. If he really friend or foe?

      Ilona is such as odd character…at least to me. She’s definitely a free spirit. One thing that kept this movie from a higher rating is because the movie never develops a deep sense of outrage in Iona to justify the ending. These are mere quibbles for a movie that I very much enjoyed. But that elusive 4+ rating from me has to be earned. 😉

      Keep your eye out for any other kinds of film like this that you can recommend. These kinds are such a blessed relief from the truly idiotic stuff that comes out of Hollywood. That reminds me, have you ever seen “Waking Ned Devine?”

      • pst4usa says:

        Sandy and I really enjoyed Waking Ned Devine, but I thought we were the only ones. But like I have said before, I am easily entertained.

  3. Ed Cottingham says:

    >>the movie never develops a deep sense of outrage in Iona to justify the ending.
    I certainly agree with your characterization of her as a free spirit. She would have been a great 70s gal, baking brown bread and dancing in the daisies in a peasant blouse. A sensuous person…not a brooder; probably not thoughtful at all; spontaneous.

    But she might be like that Bob Dylan woman that I mentioned elsewhere this morning: “She knows to much to argue or to judge.” So maybe she did not need to wear her hatred on her sleeve for all those decades; her sense of what to do was almost somatic it was so deep; she didn’t need to think about it or obsess with hatred and be poisoned by it; when her chance came, she knew in her bones what she was going to do. She calmly acted…and then calmly and tidily washed the vial. But I don’t disagree with what you said about lack of motivation shown to the audience. I’m mostly exploring in myself why I was not troubled by that.

    Ned Devine…I’m on it. I see that it streams free with Amazon Prime so that’s great. I certainly expect to enjoy it and would give a shot at anything that you particularly recommended. I like to get personal recommendations from people who have given me reason to respect their opinions. I should say though that I expect that although clearly we have areas of shared taste, we also have areas where tastes do not correspond. I mostly like fairly modern movies, and [I hope you are sitting down] there is not one western among my favorite films. I don’t like actors such as John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, as a rule…silent manliness bores me to death. And annoys me a little. And I care less about story and plot than most people. I like convincing and fully drawn characters; I generally like period pieces, a “period” at least a couple of decades ago such that I can really enjoy the costumes, set design, and other production values; I like films that are “busy” like Scorsese’s gangster films; I like great dialog that is ~realistic~, not the exchange of overly clever remarks common to old films. I think of myself as being a bit like the character Amélie in her eponymous film: she had learned to appreciate little things like skipping stones, plunging her hand into a sack of dry beans, and cracking the top of her crème brûlée. One of the best films of the last decade or so, IMO, is the lightly appreciated, “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Brilliant acting by Jude Law and Phillip Seymour Hoffman; wonderful period Italian settings…just gorgeous; fabulous music that made sense to the story; a psychological thriller with completely convincing, fully-drawn characters, moments of Hitchcockian tension. That was a film in which there was a lot going on…a busy camera ravishing the visual surroundings. I find that a lot of people cannot enjoy films if there is not good guy for them to identify with. I don’t feel that. Production values like those in Ripley just did not happen back in the day. Of course, I do enjoy some early films and nothing that I have said is an absolute. But, generally speaking, these are considerations that seem to direct my taste. And oh, I mustn’t omit the generalization that dialog is much more important to me than action. Dialog and setting…no particular need to bust up the furniture or shoot out the lights although I am not troubled by violence. But I am completely bored by most car chases.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, a great 70’s gal. She was the model of the person freely dancing to the pipes of Pan, not getting hung up on “outmoded” things such as monogamy and commitment. I didn’t see that as a central or even a subsidiary message of the film. It just was an underlying cultural way of being.

      Again, another reason this movie was marked down is because it didn’t explore that beyond the angst encountered, now and again, by the two men going after the same woman, seemingly having learned the fortune-cookie-wisdom of “If you love someone, set them free…if they come back, they’re yours.” A movie based upon this them alone would be interesting to me. But the movie would have been better if it had shown some rationale for why they were all acting in this way.

      But this movie sort of just floats above anything too serious…other than the Nazis, of course. In that way, it’s a strange mix. But it works, particularly because the restaurateur is such a believable, if low-key, character. The same with Herr Wieck. His social awkwardness is in such contrast to that of Ilona. And although Ilona flirts perhaps a bit too much with being some sort of Greek Goddess who is larger than life, Herr Wieck is all too real, and so wonderfully acted. And certainly this contrast is part of the attraction.

      I marked down too for András who seemed to have only one gear as an actor. Had he been able to more convincingly play “haunted” better (and perhaps with a script with just a touch of backstory on why he should be), it would have gained a quarter point right there. But he reminded me too much of the ineptness of Hayden Christensen trying to evoke a true feeling in the “Star Wars” films.

      But these are mere quibbles regarding I movie that I very much enjoyed. This is the type of movie that screams quality, and you want to see more from this director or writer. Even Michael Curtiz had to direct a movie or two before he was able to do “Casablanca.”

      If you like Ned Devine (and don’t try to hard to like it…it’s a subtle movie), I’ll have some other similar suggestions for you.

      Regarding period pieces, run, don’t walk, and watch the series “Downton Abbey.” You might even like the more esoteric “Gosford Park” as a period piece in the same vein.

      Yes, we do differ in our tastes on some things. And that’s half the fun. I thought “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was an awful movie. Oh well! But I like Jude Law. I thought he was great in “Gattaca” and in the remake of “Alfie.” In some ways, I liked it better than the original version with Michael Caine.

      • Ed Cottingham says:

        Your reference to Alfie cracks me up! Not exactly a film on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days but I was thinking about it today…thinking about how I did ~not~ like it! Oh well. (There’s a remake?) BUT, Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors — the original British secret agent type. Matured wonderfully. Has done comedy, adventure, and psychological drama. He was a wonderful, ridiculous, love-struck character in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Lately, I enjoyed him as a tortured and pursued French war criminal, still on the run into contemporary time. (The Statement)

        I talked a few days ago about a friendship on the rocks ostensibly over a film opinion. But it is not at all necessary to me in enjoying friendship to have anything remotely like unanimity of opinion. What is important is that there be at least some films about which you can enjoy sharing your passionate appreciation with other people. After that, differences are growth opportunities. Absent that…you don’t have much going on in a friendship, IMO.

        As to “period pieces,” I hesitated to use that term, which often suggests the Victorian era. I liked Downton Abbey a lot, btw. But I also consider Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas as a period piece. Alternatively, you can easily make a 60s era film that is hardly distinguishable from the present day. But like Mad Men, Goodfellas was highly self-conscious about its place in time and lavished visual attention (not to mention the music) on cars, clothes, hairstyles, etc.

        I only watched a little of Ned Devine before I fell asleep. Strictly my bad…no opinion formed yet. I will say that I do not have a good record with Irish and English films. Often they seem too loose, too careless to me. I suppose that is the case with Alphie. Plus the Irish tend to revel in their poverty…so many row houses, so many bitter people.

        Ripley, awful?!? Now you’re getting me mad [grin]. Maybe I will have to write a review (Do you take reviews from over the transom?) to give you something to attack without putting you to too much bother over something distasteful. I guess everyone is entitled to a few peremptory challenges (dismissals), so to speak. But you know I am going to want to tease out your issues there.

        Thinking about your mediocre bottom line on Gloomy Sunday, and your commentary, I will just say that my approach to films is not relentlessly evaluative toward every element. My final judgement is based mostly on the question of whether the film draws me in and whether I enjoyed my time there as a fly on the wall. Of course, it is possible for one bad actor or one or two defects to turn me negative on the whole thing. But mostly, for me, it is the gestalt. For example, I never could get into the acclaimed film, The English Patient. Why? I don’t like hot weather. I don’t like sandy, arid landscapes. I did not want to spend time with these people. (Of course, I had no complaints about Lawrence of Arabia…go figure.)

        I’ve enjoyed my Day of the Jackal DVD and watched it many times after previously loving the great novel. And yet, I cannot stand Edward Fox who had some terrible lines and terrible direction in spots. But the whole movie was on his shoulders, and it is one of my favorite movies. The story is so strong and historically rooted, the pacing and building of tension is so excellent (preserving what was great about the book), the settings are terrific…it all sweeps me along. Whenever Fox utters some line that I think really stinks, I just mutter under my breath, “Jagoff.” And then I let the movie carry me along. (This relaxed way of seeing movies is probably not typical of the way that I approach most things, unfortunately. In most areas, I do a good bit of obsessing over minor defects.)
        Edit: And now having seen Ned Devine through to the end, a few brief remarks.

        A highly enjoyable film with great character turns by its stars. Good-humored, warm-hearted, a film that will long hang in the mind although not for any profound point that I can think of. Not that movies necessarily need a profound point…some are just entertainment. Watching as a critic — which I am not — I suppose I could say that it ventured toward farce with the naked motorcycle riding or that the obtrusive use of music was unusual, but do I care? Not one bit; I enjoyed it and felt good good with this happy little village of thieves. And it was gorgeous.

        It could have taken a darker turn if, for example, the village had decided to murder the witch. Then we could perhaps have called it some kind of parable or great moral tale, but I am rather happy with it as a good yarn and nothing to intellectualize about. Good recommendation, Brad.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Ed, I may have to go back and watch “Ripley” again, although I remember it as being a very poor movie. But I will admit that the first time I saw “Ned Devine” that I was a little underwhelmed, although I generally enjoyed it. My brother and I are big-time into these small-town Irish or Scottish movies.

          Then, for some reason, I watched it again about a year later. I thought it was superb.

          As for “Alfie,” it’s been a while since I’ve seen either, but there are good attributes to both. And there are enough differences that you can simply watch them as two different movies. And you’re talking to a very big Michael Caine fan, so I’ll have to take a look at “The Statement.” I don’t recall ever seeing that one. And what a cast it has. I became a Tilda Swinton fan with “Constantine.” And then she nailed my loyalties with her role as The White Witch in “Narnia,” as well as the bitch wife in “Burn After Reading.” And Ciarán Hinds will always be Julius Caesar to me. Anyone who has not seen HBO’s “Rome” series should stop what they are doing now and watch it. I wish I could say the same for “The Tudors” (although the first season or so is very good). But certainly Jeremy Northam is outstanding in that series as Sir Thomas More.

          I like Michael Caine, but sometimes his persona doesn’t work in a movie. But when it does (such as “Hannah and Her Sister”), it’s great fun. I also like him in “Blame it on Rio,” “The Prestige,” “Secondhand Lions,” and “Deathtrap” to name a few. He also tends to spice up any picture in which he is just one of an ensemble cast.

          I’m an Edward Fox fan as well. I think he’s terrific in the made-for-TV series or movie “Edward and Mrs. Simpson.”

          And about all that “The English Patient” and “Lawrence of Arabia” have in common is sand. If you stuck with it, there are elements of “The English Patient” that are good. But the movie is simply too long. And Ralph Fiennes simply can’t carry this film. Sean Connery might have. But not Fiennes. The best review of this film ever was given by Elaine from “Seinfeld”: “It’s too long. Quit telling our stupid story about the stupid desert and die already.”

          But as for movies in general, I agree with you that it’s the general gestalt or zeitgeist that matters. I know people who won’t watch a movie simply because it is in black or white. Even more perplexing is people who say they don’t like a movie because they don’t agree with the subject matter. But how stupid would it be to not like “Das Boot” because you don’t like Nazis? But some people are like that.

          I take it as axiomatic that American tastes have been run down by too much bland, fast-food types of movies. I have nothing to say to those who don’t like a truly great movie. I just smile, pat them on the head, and tell them to go watch “Spider-man 3.”

          But for those who see movies as an important and entertaining art form, then I like all talk about movies. But I have one rule that I try to abide by, which is the same in politics: Although I realize that what we like or dislike comes from a factor deeply embedded in us, I do not think this is, or should be, then end of the story. There is such thing as art appreciation and there is a road to developing better taste (or a more savvy political awareness).

          Therefore, “I like it” or “I don’t like it” is not the end of the discussion for me. I think movies — good or bad — offer a lot more to talk about. And if one doesn’t wish to be introspective about them, fine. I can honor that. But I’ve also run into to many cases of discussing movies, as I typically do in detail, and have the other person say, “Oh, yeah, that really did suck. I didn’t think about that.”

          As is the case with art, we cannot see what we do not either bother to notice or do not have the eyes to notice. If all one wants to do is put a quarter in the machine and dispense a movie, I’m fine with that. I watch movies for entertainment just like anyone else. But contained within a movie is so much more, including sometimes why we like them or don’t like them, and especially the various elements of artistry that are either in abundance or lacking — not to mention the usually layer upon layer of meaning.

          Many of my recommendations are not for those who suffer from ADHD. If you don’t like one of the quirkiest and best movies I’ve ever seen — “Local Hero” — then you won’t offend me, but you will show me that you most likely cannot eat filet mignon without smothering it first with A-1 Sauce. The American taste in movies and art is undeveloped and typically crude. You can no more say that you have an appreciation for movies if all you watch is what Red Box has to offer than you can say you are a fan of literature because you read comic books.

          But that’s not to say I am a movie snob. Far from it. I love what others refer to as “popcorn movies.” The problem is, I wonder sometimes if people relate to forms of art beyond popcorn. Many don’t.

          • Kung Fu Zu says:

            If any of you want to see a real film and wonderful acting see “The Sand Pebbles” with Steve McQueen. I think this is one of the best films every made.

            For English period pieces, “Upstairs, Downstairs” which was on PBS in the 1970’s was every bit as good as “Downton Abbey”. I suspect Fellows had it in the back of his mind when writing both “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey”

            As a Texan, I don’t think Michael Caine worked in “Second Hand Lions”. Duval was, as usual, wonderful.

            Films can be strange things. The best “Hamlet” I ever saw was Russian. It was in black and white. I didn’t understand a word, but the atmosphere was incredible. The facial and physical control of the main character was fantastic.

            • Ed Cottingham says:

              KFZ, I have meant to watch The Sand Pebbles for years, and now I surely will get to it. The Shadow of Your Smile was one of the last, great, non-rock, classic pop tunes, IMO.

              • Kung Fu Zu says:

                I used to sing it in Japan before they had those stupid Karaoke boxes.

                There was one particular bar in Tokyo near to where I worked and a Japanese friend and I would visit it often. In those days, a lot of business was done in bars.

                Anyway, the bar had a pianist who played very well and he and I would improvise on all sorts of songs. I had been singing since I was three and grew up to be a lyric tenor. By the time, I had had almost two years of voice lessons in order to go professional. After studying abroad, I decided I didn’t want to get stuck in the artsy milieu and decided to go into international something or other instead. I ended up in international business living overseas almost 25 years.

                By the way, the song is from “The Sand Piper”. “The Sand Pebbles” takes place on an American Gunboat patrolling the Yangtze river in the 1920’s.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              It’s been a while, but I’ve seen “The Sand Pebbles.” Yes, a very good movie. Maybe I’ll have to watch that again. And, of course, it’s another film not available on Netflix. 🙂

              But “Upstairs, Downstairs” is, and I had watched a few episodes of that a few months ago. The production values are not on par with “Downton Abbey.” But there is some very fine acting.

              “Gosford Park” is unabashedly a Masterpiece Theatre type of “geek” film. Only a British master/servant aficionado would love it. This is therefore a movie that I don’t even try to recommend to people because it would just tend to hurt my “movie recommendation cred,” such as still exists (or will exist after you get a few more of my recommendations).

              But what a great cast, including Maggie Smith, Jeremy Northam (yes, the man can actually sing a lick), Clive Owen (I’ve already had enough Clive Owen to last a lifetime, but he’s good in this), Stephen Fry (a bit part that is somewhat out of context with the rest of the movie but is hilarious nonetheless), Derek Jacobi (whether you love him because of “I, Claudius” or “Cadfael” is immaterial, but you must love him), and, of course, Helen Mirren who shows how truly great actors act in an ensemble cast such as this. She simply stays in character and pulls you in with her quality performance that is never flashy but riveting because it is real.

              Yes, Duval is another of my favorites. You gotta see him in “The Apostle.”

              • Kung Fu Zu says:

                Upstairs, Downstairs is one of those movies that are filmed like a soap opera. It is almost as if one is watching in a theater. I have never understood how some recorded works can look so different from others. They are all using film cameras.

  4. Ed Cottingham says:

    Interesting comments, Brad. I am tempted to go onto many tangents but probably we are hanging about as much as we should onto Gloomy Sunday. In future, I’ll have more to say about films with major “defects” that I nonetheless love. (Not referring to GS, which has no huge defects to me.) And, similarly, there are films with small bits of acting that are so compelling that nothing else much matters. This is what I mean by “intensive viewing”…not necessarily catching every plot detail but being really absorbed in great moments of a film. (The typically aimless Altman ballet film, The Company, has such a bravura performance in the gay diva, company artistic director, played by Malcolm McDowell, that I can watch it repeatedly just for his bitchy shtick.)

    Alas, I’ve got to attend to the real world today.

    Edit: Gosh I wish I could get under control my habit of not landing my comments in the right place. Obviously, this was a direct reply to Brad.

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