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Command Indecision

Tamás Dobos

Natural Light (2021)

“Natural Light,” set during WWII, often feels like classic awards bait. Its visual and thematic austerity is stark. The film appears to center on the moral awakening of Isvván Semetka (Ferenc Szabó), a photographer turned commander of the Hungarian force occupying Soviet territories – though it’s hard to tell from his perpetual stoicism.

The film devotes much of its runtime to depicting the complicity of, or active participation by, Hungarian soldiers in the pillaging of villages. Though we witness few barbaric acts, the specter is always there as the troops joke of sexually assaulting the women who begrudgingly serve meals to the uninvited guests. Semetka never gets involved, preferring to look the other way whenever something untoward enters his purview, regardless of whether it involves his thuggish comrades or sneaky villagers.

As told from Semetka’s vantage point, the war atrocities committed seem almost beside the point of the film; they are given equal weight to the wantonness casually meted out among the ranks, such as the denial of home leaves and the humiliating discipline administered to guards who fall asleep while on watch. The most graphic depiction of violence is inexplicably of a murder committed by the Soviets, who hang the village starosta (Aivars Kuzmins) for furnishing the Hungarians with directions.

“Natural Light” presents a world devoid of humanity or redeeming qualities. Maybe cruelty is the point of the film, but we wouldn’t know that, either. Semetka’s buddy Koleszár (László Bajkó) suddenly takes over command, because Semetka is weak and Koleszár wants to spare him from the war crime about to be perpetrated. So maybe Semetka has always had a conscience, but writer-director Dénes Nagy renders it useless as the character is never called upon to make a tough choice.


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