The Cold War-era history of Hungary is not a subject upon which I have any particular claim of expertise; for am I an American, and we are required by convention and national fidelity not to give a shit about what happened anywhere else in the world during that period. And for this reason, it took a lot of guessing and taking mental notes on things to look up later for me to get all the way through The Last Report on Anna, the latest film by 79-year-old director Mészáros Márta, a politically-engaged filmmaker who got her start over 50 years ago, in a country where being politically engaged was quite a bit more serious than I or my fellow Yanks could ever really claim to appreciate.

Yet, despite its overwhelmingly dense historicity, the film hit me square in the gut, both on the levels of sheer artistry, and out of respect for the scope and passion of Mészáros's treatment of a subject whom, one begins to suspect as the movie concludes, isn't all that well-known inside Hungary either. That subject is Kéthly Anna (Eszenyi Enikö), a politician in Hungary's Social Democrat party before and after World War II, who viewed with alarm her country's absorption into the Soviet Communist bloc, and who spent the last two decades of her life in exile, following the failure of the 1956 revolution (which had, for a brief week, left her as Hungary's delegate to the United Nations). It is late in this period of exile, in Belgium, that we meet her.

Though even that isn't quite right: in point of fact, the movie opens in 1991, when Hungary was freed of the last remnants of Soviet influence. And it opens not with the long-dead Kéthly, but with Faragó Péter (Fekete Ernõ), an aging man who meets his nephew in a café with a statement of grim intent: years ago he did something, something not very nice, and before the news comes out, he wants to tell the story himself. Thus do we cross back to the early 1970s, when Péter, a literary scholar, is offered an opportunity by the Communist government: journey to Belgium under the pretext of giving an important, even career-making lecture, and while he's there, meet with Anna and convince her to return to Hungary, as her absence from the country has made her something of an embarrassing symbol (the scheme has come up not at all by chance: Péter is the spitting image of his uncle, Anna's former lover). Out of the vacant patriotism that is the privilege of the politically dispassionate, and mostly for the chance to advance his career, Péter agrees - though it's implied that not agreeing wasn't really a choice - and off he goes, to meet and be dazzled by the stunningly charismatic woman he's been ordered to spy on.

Though not without its charms as a tale of political intrigue, The Last Report on Anna is above all a story of the curious interaction between Anna (who never quite trusts the young man) and Péter (who never quite forgets that the woman is an enemy of his politics), and what this triggers in each of them. Anna is sent her into nostalgic reverie, recalling the glorious days of her past and lamenting that she can never go home a living woman without sacrificing her principles; Péter starts to wonder, in a halting and scared way, if his unexamined political beliefs would hold up to the examination. The film is thus a blend of three distinct and totally interrelated pas de deux, one between the two protagonists and the others within each character's mind, played by the two actors with tremendous fragility. Eszenyi is particularly great, using the tiniest gestures, sometimes no more than a slight crease in her brow, to tell us all that we could ever need to know about Anna's inner pain; even the fact that it is never expressed outright, except in moments of great anger, tells us volumes about this woman.

Mészáros frames the drama primarily in close-ups and lengthy (but not show-off long) takes designed to focus all our attention on the people in the movie; even when she changes the aesthetic dramatically, as happens frequently when the time comes to dramatise some past event, and the footage is altered to look either like a newsreel or a noir dream, depending on the context, our attention is always drawn chiefly to how Anna herself changes throughout time. The director's own age doubtlessly contributes to her sympathy to presenting, above all things else, an old woman's awareness of time passing; nor can it be a coincidence that the most lingering shots of Péter are those few which take place in 1991, after he's been beaten about some more by life and the march of history. To look back, to remember the past: this driving theme illuminates the whole film, both in its explicit, message-movie sense - "Hey kids, let me tell you about Kéthly Anna, a damn hero" - and in the more aching humanist sense that ends up dominating the film. At its best - that is to say, most of it - The Last Report on Anna is a reminder that historical actors are always human beings first, before they change the world; and by exploring how those beings' humanity in turn creates history, the film cunningly and movingly folds the personal and the political into one. It is a strong declaration that the past is always with us, through whatever shade of meaning you want to apply to that phrase. And it will almost certainly never get a proper release in the United States, which I consider to be a sadder destiny than anything suggested within the lightly tragic plot of the film itself; this was, I am content to say, my favorite among all the films I saw at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival.