Film Review: ‘On Body and Soul’

Sometimes the most modest films deserve the biggest screens

As production companies continue to balk at theatrically releasing their movies, streaming behemoth Netflix snaps up the most interesting and daring contemporary movies. On the one hand, smaller, more challenging movies that might struggle to find an audience are given international audiences. On the other, the movie theatre-phobic streaming company robs audiences of the cinematic experience for which many of these movies were intended.

Such is the case with Ildikó Enyedi’s brilliantly bizarre On Body and Soul. Luckily for Melburnians, the film is getting a limited theatrical release at Cinema Nova. Having seen it at a media preview, I can tell you there are few movies that deserve the big screen more than this oddball romance about two socially-inept misfits—and their fateful dreams.

Winner of the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear—the festival’s highest honour—and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, Enyedi’s first feature film in 18 years (her first film, My Twentieth Century, won the Caméra d’Or) arrives onto our shores riding waves of prestige. It’s ironic—the whiffs of pretension and coldness of Cannes and other European Film Festival favourites are completely absent from this Hungarian drama.

Alexandra Borbély plays government-assigned quality inspector Maria at the local slaughterhouse. She’s cold and distant, it seems, sitting by herself at lunch and offering only terse, formal responses in place of conversation.

Enyedi uses closeups and there’s a soft, almost golden palette to the way cinematographer Máté Herbai shoots the film. It emphasises the distant, though very clear, humanity in Borbély’s performance. She’s rigid yet yearning, uncomfortable yet unmoving.

After a break-in at the slaughterhouse, a psychologist is called in to evaluate the workers. When she speaks with director of the slaughterhouse Endre (Géza Morcsányi), a man with a maimed arm who claims he has given up on romance since his wife died, he tells her about his dream. He’s a deer, by a stream, searching for food with a companion. Maria has had the same dream, from the perspective of the female companion.

Occasionally devastating, On Body and Soul broaches subjects of animal ethics, suicide, and mental illness without ever seeming judgemental. It’s the job of a critic to unpack how a director and her team achieve the most intangible aspects of their films, but I struggled to figure out how exactly Enyedi’s light touch achieved so much without being overbearing or preachy. She lingers on the faces of the cows as they await their fates, before cutting to Endre looking out the window at the employees on their smoking breaks, cracking jokes and bullying the unsuspecting Maria. Her approach, like all great filmmakers, is empathetic instead of didactic.

With a soundtrack that offsets the film’s warmth with mystery, as well as a perfectly utilised Laura Marling song, On Body and Soul looks as good as it sounds. It’s best seen on the biggest screen with the best speakers. Where else but the cinema?

– Tom

Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.

On Body and Soul will be released on 10 May at the Cinema Nova. It is currently only streaming on the US Netflix.

The Plus Ones were invited guests of Miranda Brown Publicity
Image credit: Cinema Nova