At one point early in “Natural Light,” Corporal Istvan Semetka (Ferenc Szabó) can be seen outside the kitchen where one of his fellow Hungarian soldiers in Company 44/23 has dared to ask their superior for a break from the action. Their commander closes off the conversation as soon as he senses he won’t like what he’s about to hear, but it seems incomplete to Semetka as a matter of distance, presented at such a remove where his general impressions of what happening in the other room are likely accurate but obscured, leaving the most fearful thoughts to fester until the point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In that way, Semetka shares something in common with those he’s assigned to patrol in Russia during World War II, rooting out anyone thought to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union who were working with the allies to defeat Nazi Germany. Like being on the wrong side of the door, Semetka inevitably will realize he’ll be on the wrong side of history as well, but writer/director Dénes Nagy crafts a distinctive feature debut by investigating what one loses in war far beyond what is being fought for. Although the soldiers carry guns, they’re rarely used except to threaten in “Natural Light,” where even that is unnecessary in the small village Semetka’s troop settles for what’s intended to be a two-night stay. All that’s needed to take the best beds and a generous helping of food from the families there who can barely afford it is an allegation they could be a partisan, a death sentence that needs no evidence to be carried out.
Semetka isn’t viewed sympathetically as he carries out orders by an impervious commander, but he grows more skeptical of what purpose he’s serving, an uncertainty you never see cross his face, but emerges in his startled interactions with the villagers and a slower walk around the woods he patrols to the chagrin of his commander. Watching the humanity drain out of him may sound like par for the course, but it’s anything but when that loss is shown to be spread out across everyone stationed in Saltanakova from those purported to have power to those who don’t, extending a feeling of occupation to the occupiers themselves. When a Sergeant Major shows up to check in on the company, obviously having some history with Semetka when asking about his family, it seems like his rank is a luxury only in affording the ability to still engage in small talk when even the act of speaking comes at an obvious cost.
The immaculate attention to historical detail is evident from the earliest scenes in “Natural Light,” but Nagy rises to the challenge of being every bit as attentive to the emotional authenticity of the drama where the smallest shifts in Semetka’s behavior carry incredible weight. Often filming over his lead’s shoulders and leaning in to the natural environment to set the mood, Nagy reminds of his fellow countryman László Nemes (“Son of Saul”) in wringing an expressiveness from a largely inscrutable central character, played with admirable stoicism by Szabó, but while the camera stays close, the writer/director fashions something unique as he takes the measure of a man who gets further and further away from who he thinks himself to be.