Gyöngyvér Vigh (L) and Katalin Berek in Adoption (1975) | Courtesy of Criterion Collection

Anatomy of the Wounded: Márta Mészáros’ ‘Adoption’

Márta Mészáros’ film Adoption is empathetic and beady-eyed about the negotiations and indignities of those caught up in social prejudices, especially women.

Adoption (Örökbefogadás)
Márta Mészáros
8 March 2022

In 1975, Márta Mészáros’ became the first woman to win the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the Berlin Film Festival. Her film, Adoption (Örökbefogadás), was also the first Hungarian film to play the festival. While this was her international breakthrough, it’s only one film in a career distinguished by films with a highly personal, often autobiographical flavor.

Adoption begins as a woman wakes up to begin her day and go to work. She is Kata (Kati Berek), though we don’t know her name yet.

We’re already getting ahead of ourselves. Before we see Kata rise, we hear a clock ticking mercilessly in the dark, as though it’s an Ingmar Bergman film. This isn’t a gratuitous detail, for we’ll find out that our 43-year-old protagonist wants to have a baby and fears it’s too late.

As impassively as the clock ticks, the camera watches impassively, in exquisitely sharp black and white, as Kata raises blinds to flood the room with light. One cut later and we’re in an almost abstract shower scene, the closeup details of skin overlit to steamy whiteness, almost a dissolution more than cleansing. The viewer must make some effort to translate the image and sound.

Another cut later and Kata’s at work with many other women in what looks like a documentary sequence in a factory. They appear to be planing and shaping pieces of wood until everybody’s covered with sawdust. We’ll learn that Kata even makes bits of furniture at her own lathe at home, just as a hobby that she was taught by her father. Mészáros’ father was a sculptor killed in Stalinist purges in Russia. It’s how she ended up a ward of the state.

Many scenes in the film have the documentary quality of observing non-actors in the moment, often looking directly into the camera. This filmmaker loves faces and has never let go of her documentary background, just as she never let go of her personal experience to inform her characters.

Even so, Mészáros is quoted in the Criterion booklet declaring that her films aren’t so realist but are “stylized … like westerns”. We catch a glimpse of that in the shower scene, which almost refuses to let us understand what we see and certainly doesn’t “objectify” Kata’s body, although later scenes have frankly depicted nudity that’s both erotic and mundane. Indeed, there will be a shared shower scene between two women laughing giddily, enjoying the moment.

This later shower will immediately follow a sequence where the two women laugh and enjoy themselves in a restaurant, attracting the attention of several local men who smirk at them and come over to try their luck. As their attempts are turned aside, do they perceive the two single women as an illicit couple, one older than the other? Does this fuel their smirks?

My goodness, it’s difficult to discuss this film in a linear manner. Adoption is composed of moments designed to remind us of other moments, details that resonate, intuitively reasoned connections.

Another early clue to what Mészáros means by highly stylized comes after the scene where Kata and a doctor discuss whether she can still get pregnant. He says yes, and this scene has more closeups of Kata’s body as the doctor applies his stethoscope to her back. Armed with facts about her health, Kata meets her married lover, the same one she mentioned to her doctor, in a public park.

He’s Jóska, played by László Szabó, a presence in several French New Wave films. Conducting a secret affair with Kata, this father of two states clearly that he doesn’t agree to give her a child to raise by herself. As he raises various objections, including his belief that the child would suffer, the background seems to whirl gently in a circle about their table, as though they’re both feeling slightly dizzy. Kata is too self-contained and stubborn to argue, and this is true of all the film’s women.

A mysterious detail is introduced through a chorus of observers at another table. This gaggle of sullen teen girls in sweaters and jeans, whom we’ll learn live in a nearby state home, point out Kata to each other. The way they watch her, in silence and suspicion, will contrast with the appreciative smirks of the men in the restaurant. The girls even follow Kata home and enter without ceremony while she works at her lathe. She has no idea what they want but she states she’s not afraid of anybody.

After a few questions, the teens leave. One returns. She’s Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a lanky girl as prickly in personality as Kata. She asks if she and her longhaired boyfriend Sanyi (Péter Fried) can meet for assignations in Kata’s house. Perhaps surprisingly, Kata agrees. She’ll become increasingly involved in Anna’s complicated situation about bureaucracy and distant disapproving parents and the permission for this girl to marry her 22-year-old boyfriend. While Anna is physically mature, she’s called “underage” and we never learn what her age is.

Kata explains that Anna might be her daughter in a manner of speaking, but Anna’s fed up with parents. At an early point, she bluntly warns Kata against adopting a child because abandoned children are all wounded. As the title has already told us, Kata will eventually ignore this advice, although the title is ambiguous enough to imply that Kata and Anna have mutually adopted each other in an informal way.

Adoption‘s two plot strands of desire—to marry and to have a child—culminate in each having what another film would present as a “happy ending”. We witness a wedding, in which the couple is already arguing about something, and an adoption. Mészáros, herself an orphan and a product of state systems, is too “damaged” to give us the warm fuzzy feel-goodness of other films.

Both decisions mark a new stage, and both stages will be fraught with problems. A person can only continue to muddle through, an idea conveyed in freeze-frame as the newly burdened adoptive mother hurries through a muddy street to a bus. No primrose path, no beds of roses.

This smartly observed film manages to be both empathetic and beady-eyed about official and personal processes and prejudices and the negotiations and indignities of those caught in them, especially women. Sometimes their personalities contribute to their problems and sometimes their hardness and cussedness are their strengths to endure.

Even for Criterion, a company known for intelligent bonus material, the extras for Adoption are particularly informative. Perhaps this is because Mészáros is an under-viewed artist in the West, a condition she shares with the rest of her country’s significant filmmakers. The disc includes a short subject, Blow-Ball (1964), in which a boy feels rejected by both of his divorced parents; a 2019 interview with Mészáros; and two good profiles, made by women, of her life and work.

One amusing anecdote from her interview involves the fact that she was married for many years to Hungary’s other major filmmaker to emerge in the 1960s, Miklós Jancsó. They had nothing to do with each other’s films, but Mészáros recalls that people kept thinking her husband was about to arrive at any moment during productions to help her. They had to get used to the idea that he wasn’t showing up. It’s like working with Agnès Varda and expecting Jacques Demy to help her out. Mészáros says she and Varda would laugh together over the realities of being women who made films.

By no coincidence, both Mészáros and Jancsó are now emerging on Blu-ray because both have been the object in recent years of projects from Hungary’s National Film Archive, such as this impeccable transfer from a 4K digital restoration. Kino Lorber is releasing an omnibus of Jancsó’s films, while the early months of 2022 have seen a touring retrospective of 11 Mészáros films distributed by Janus Films.

Adoption is Criterion’s first foray into the world of Mészáros, and we trust more of her hard-eyed tenderness will arrive on Blu-ray soon.