Operatic approach of ‘Johanna’ intriguing if a bit monotonous

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 8, 2010 6:08pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

It’s pretty unusual for an actress of near-obscurity to arrive in key roles in two movies on the same day.

But, the vagaries of foreign-film distribution being what they are, this is the moment for Hungarian actress Orsi Toth. In a powerful film about women in Iran, “Women Without Men,” she plays a prostitute who tries to rub the horror from the skin of her dangerously thin frame.

In the eccentric Hungarian production “Johanna,” Toth plays the central role, a drug addict who has apparently survived an accident. She’s taken to a dank, seemingly underground hospital (the greenish walls of this place make it look like an aquarium that hasn’t been cleaned in a while, not a reassuring hospital setting).

Though cured of her addiction by a smitten doctor, Johanna has nowhere to go, and so studies nursing while learning on the job. Her approach to healing, however, puts an emphasis on “laying on of hands,” including a sexual component.

This endears her to patients, because along with the sexual technique of her ministry, the sick are in fact healed. And this, in turn, makes her suspect in the eyes of the traditionalists.

There’s one thing about this scenario we haven’t mentioned yet. It’s all sung. “Johanna” is an opera of sorts, with the interestingly forceful music of Zsofia Taller performed throughout.

Director Kornel Mundruczo’s idea is that Johanna the healing addict is a modern-day Joan of Arc, a charismatic figure whose mysterious powers make her a threat to the prevailing order. So along with the singing, we can expect a downbeat ending.

Obviously, “Johanna” is something of a novelty film (it first screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and has taken that long to get a U.S. release), but that’s what puts it over — at least for a while. You don’t run across an 83-minute Hungarian opera on film every day, so even if the movie becomes a bit monotonous, it still has the “What on Earth am I watching?” appeal.

And Orsi Toth is compelling in the lead role, a sinner with a touch of saintliness about her.

Maybe now filmmakers could give her a break; having seen her in these two extreme parts in the same week, I think it would be interesting to see her play a normal role.

“Johanna” ½

A drug addict is taken to a Hungarian hospital, where she trains to become a nurse; but her sexually oriented healing techniques cause problems for the authorities. Oh, and everything in this movie is sung: It’s an opera, a novelty that makes it intriguing despite a certain monotony that sets in. In Hungarian, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity

Showing: Grand Illusion

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