Location, location, location. Those are the three keys to success when you don't have a Hollywood backlot ' or a Hollywood budget ' to play with. And judging by those criteria, the Hungarian American NimrÃd Antal has succeeded beyond a writer-director's wildest dreams. Perhaps because he asked politely, Antal was granted permission to shoot his first film, the darkly comic thriller Kontroll, within the bowels of Budapest's subway system, one of the oldest in the world. And he's made the most of his opportunity, turning the dark, dank corridors into a kind of existential limbo between life and death, heaven and hell. Not once does the movie take the escalator all the way up to the clear light of day.
And neither does its main character, BulcsÃ (SÃndor CsÃnyi), a handsome young man who seems way overqualified for his job as a ticket inspector. Sneered at, spat upon, even beaten up on occasion, ticket inspectors work in teams, requesting proof that someone has indeed paid for the ride. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it; and of his team members only BulcsÃ seems to enjoy the abuse, consider it part of his self-imposed exile. In fact, when the others finish their shifts and ascend to the surface to lick their wounds, BulcsÃ burrows deeper into the catacombs, looking for a place where even the smoggy haze of the fluorescent tubes can't reach him. Call him the Underground Man.
Not that Kontroll is soaked in Dostoyevskian torment. Antal gets a deadpan, slightly absurdist humor going, the members of BulcsÃ's team comprising a circus troupe of misfits and dimwits. And he offers BulcsÃ a chance for romance with a pretty young woman (Eszter Balla) who floats through the movie in a teddy bear costume. The whimsy is held in check, however, by the grit and grime that adhere to everything and by a phantom figure who keeps shoving waiting passengers into the paths of oncoming trains. To his credit, Antal doesn't try to resolve these tones, just allows them to slide past each other, like subway cars on adjoining tracks. Aboard these speeding caskets, you never know who or what you'll run into.