The first project completed by director Tarr Béla, and the second released, the 1977/'79 film Family Nest is a great deal more conventional than the student short Hotel Magnezit, though mostly for that reason, it's also a great deal more successful and satisfying.

Opening with a title card ironically claiming that this isn't a true story that didn't happen to these people... but it could have!, the film feels very much like it was made by a talented, ambitious, and extremely pissed-off 22-year-old whose youthful righteousness has not yet been tempered by restraint and craftiness, for that is after all what happened. It's a dissection of one element of life under the brutally inefficient and dehumanised Communist government of Hungary that favors lacerating frankness and uncomfortable direct, aggressive visuals; yet at the same time, it's a film with real cinematic boldness and flair that one would hardly expect from a first-time director barely out of his teens. Family Nest is, undoubtedly, an apprentice film, one that lacks all subtlety and suffers from some obviously bad choices, but also one that makes it extremely clear that we had all best keep an eye on this young man, who has a real knack for how to pull a performance from a non-professional actor, a strong instinct for how the audience is going to respond to the camera, and is altogether Going Places. That Tarr ended up going to places entirely unlike the ones implied by any aspect Family Nest is one of those ironic things that we just have to live with.

Primarily, the film focuses on Laci and his wife Irén (Horváth Lászlo and his wife, who according to conservative Hungarian naming custom is named (Horváth Lászlone), living with their daughter in Laci's parents' apartment (Laci's parents being played by a married couple as well, Mr. and Mrs. Kun Gábor). It's far too small for the number of people crammed into it to be couple, and Irén trundles off weekly to check and see if the housing office has any flat for her and her husband, which they never do; meanwhile, she has to be miserable not just because of the space, but because of the irredeemable awfulness of her father-in-law, a lecherous monster whose actions become no less scuzzy, only less overt, once Laci returns home from his military service.

The film has something akin to a plot, involving pretty much every male character behaving rancidly towards every female character, but Family Nest isn't telling a story, so much as documenting a lifestyle. In a typical melodrama (which the film superficially resembles, moreso as it goes along), the horrible events that play out would be squarely based in psychology, demonstrating the father-in-law's wickedness as a driving element of the dramatic conflict. Tarr's treatment makes the act of the plot much more about the nature of the society itself, which crushes everyone and encourages only the worst kind of behavior, since it never rewards or acknowledges goodness. There are virtually no decent people in Family Nest, but it's not an indictment of people, only the system that crams all those people together in tight spaces without regard to their needs, either physical or emotional. It turns humans into animals, and they act accordingly.

To express the daily ghastliness of being kept in a box with unpleasant people that you'd like to stay away from, Tarr and cinematographer Pap Ferenc employ a series of unforgiving, claustrophobic close-ups that make us feel like we're right inside the same shoebox with Irén - an early scene takes place at a dinner table where the camera can barely fit in around all the people, and the result is one of the most uncomfortably close conversation scenes I've ever encountered in a movie. It's simplistic, sure, but also effect and nerve-wracking (it doesn't take a lot of time staring Laci's father right in the face to want to get the hell away from him just as desperately as his daughter-in-law-does), and when the film visually opens up to let Irén sit across the room from the bored functionary denying her requests for housing, the contrast is even more upsetting: despite the little toady's insistence that he's heard this story, he cannot possibly understand it, he didn't experience that cramped blocking like we did.

Eventually, the film rounds a corner and turns into a series of documentary-style interviews (right down to dissolves in the editing like news broadcasts use to shorten interviews), an unexpected stylistic jump that should feel disorienting and wrong, but instead pushes the film into a new level of intimacy and realism, giving the characters a chance to simply express themselves and be, something they have conspicuously not been able to do to that point. It's perhaps a bit more clever than natural and perfect, but it keeps the film at the in-your-face pitch that it has been all along, and this was, after all, the point Tarr was going for the whole time.

All that said, the film's one significant problem is a doozy: at a couple of moments (including, ruinously, the ending), the film launches into one of a handful of absolutely insipid pop songs, one of which is used to underscore a montage of Laci and Irén and their daughter having a pleasant time at an amusement park. It's shlocky nonsense that feels out of place in the type of social realism where Family Nest has been living, and totally outrageous in the context of Tarr's entire career; this is the kind of junk food cinema that his later work would specifically, even conspicuously reject. There's not a lot of this material, but what's there has a wildly disproportionate impact on the movie as a whole. The best parts of the film are intimate, raw, and harrowing; when it shifts out of that so abruptly, it takes the film a lot of work and time to get back on track and restore us to our proper mood. And I could take exception with some of the more miserabilist turns in the script, which push right up to the edge of melodrama and perhaps bleed over a bit. It's probably not worth nitpicking, though. This is a movie with the directness, energy, and roughness of a passionate young person puking himself out onscreen, and while that lacks elegance, it's heady stuff regardless.