Starring: Orsi Toth, Ildiko Cserna, Sandor Egri and Zsolt Trill
Tartan Video
RRP: 19.99
Certificate: 15
Available 12 March 2007

In a Hungarian hospital Johanna uses the opportunity of a major accident exercise to pilfer drugs for her addiction. Falling into a coma, she is saved from certain death. On her recovery Johanna trains as a nurse only to discover that her recent brush with death has left her with the power to heal her patients, with the use of her own body. Whilst they cannot deny her ability, the establishment is uneasy with the introduction of mysticism in a scientific environment and brand her a whore. With the help of her patients Joanne is heading for a clash with the ethos of the hospital and modern medicine...

Johanna (2005) was directed by Kornel Mundruczo, who co-wrote it with Yvette Biro. The film won two Hungarian film awards for Orsolya Toth, for best actress, and one for Mundruczo, for best director. It is an opera, in Hungarian, which re-imagines the tale of Joan of Arc for the modern cinema.

If you purchased Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), then visually and stylistically, you're going to find yourself in familiar territory. Like Lazarescu, Johanna is set in the surrealistic nightmare that is the Hungarian health care system. Can't say that these films do any favours for the Hungarian tourist board as it depicts the wards as little better than that of an impoverished third world country.

As an opera, I have to hold my hand up and admit that I'm not the greatest opera buff there is. I like opera, on the basis of I like what I like, so what did I make of Johanna? Personally my tastes run to Philip Glass for something modern, Amadeus Mozart, Giacomo Puccini and Georges Bizet for a bit of the old time stuff, which accounts for why I so enjoyed the South African version of Carmen, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005).

Johanna leans much more towards Wagner's Der Ring Nibelungen atonality, which on the one hand compliments the nihilism which pervades the story but makes for a difficult watch. This is a film that your either going to love or hate.

The film comes with stereo, 5.1 and DTS options and as you can imagine for something that contains singing all the way through, the DTS version does the film the most justice. That said, stereo works just fine - you loose a bit of the clarity, but the makers have failed to use the dynamic options inherent in DTS to its full potential, leaving a rather even soundscape. The film has only the original theatrical trailer as an extra.

Visually, the films anamorphic widescreen presentation is deliberately grainy, presumably to add to its overall ambience, and it's green, unremittingly green, which to be honest gets a bit tiring after a while. Although this is a deliberate choice, presumably to enhance the nightmare feeling of the movie, more changes in lighting would have helped to create different moods.

Although this is a film which is difficult to categorise, it is ultimately a brave experimental piece, which has more in common with German expressionist cinema than anything else. The one thing I did think was really missing was any memorable arias, there's nothing like La Donna E Mobile or Nessan Dorma to stick in your head long after the film is over.

Charles Packer

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