Cannes 2021 Review: A Legacy of Trauma is Passed Down in Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s Powerful “Evolution”

“It’s as real as it is fake,” Eva tells her daughter Lena in “Evolution,” going over old documents charting how she made it out of the concentration camps in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The two are supposed to be at a ceremony where Eva is set to be honored, but to be celebrated for surviving what others didn’t is unsavory and in her older years, leaving the house is a burden, as much as Lena would like her to go. Instead, Eva devotes the time to describing in uncomfortably graphic detail what her mother had to endure to assure her own safety, the kind of story that’s glossed over in tributes that inevitably obscures the truth, which in itself has been compromised over the years when the family had to hide their Jewish identity out of fear of further persecution and between Eva’s age and what’s been passed down to her about when she was an infant, her memories are questionable. Still, there is no doubting her experience, holding onto pain she may not entirely know how she received and has spent time denying in order to move on with her life, with Lena recognizing what she’s absorbed without her mother even knowing it’s extended beyond her.

Grasping the emotional truth of a situation without getting lost in the particulars are a specific gift of Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber, who follow-up last year’s triumphant “Pieces of a Woman” with this multigenerational drama that they had hinted at in their previous film. A bit like when Clint Eastwood felt compelled to make the smaller-scale “Letters from Iwo Jima” to accompany “Flags of Our Fathers” and it proved to be equally powerful, if not more, “Evolution” comes across as an expansion of the gripping monologue that was delivered by Ellen Burstyn in “Pieces of a Woman,” attempting to seek retribution against the midwife who was present for the unsuccessful birth of her grandchild by invoking the lengths her own mother went through during the Holocaust to protect her newborn. Wéber noted in interviews that the scene was drawn from her own personal history, and while it could serve a vengeful matriarch as a useful cudgel, the writer interrogates all the implications of having such a history, turning the discovery of a baby under the floorboards of a gas chamber in Auschwitz into an engrossing full-on reckoning with the way trauma can be carried from one generation to the next without having any real knowledge that it’s there and how much one can feel detached from their cultural identity, particularly Judaism, when an awareness of it feels more imposed than emerging from within.

Like “Pieces of a Woman,” “Evolution” begins with a breathtaking 20-minute opening sequence, following a trio of resistance fighters scrubbing clean a concentration camp when their grim task is rewarded with a rare bit of hope in the form of Eva, somehow spared from death, and never stops moving, even as the film jumps from the end of World War II to after her own daughter has a son Jonas and eventually a chapter devoted to him in his teenage years. For those who might think Mundruczó’s finest hour came with “White God,” in which the director let loose hundreds of dogs on the streets of Hungary, “Evolution” occasionally — and thrillingly — tips over into the surreal as emotions can overwhelm and environments are bent to reflecting the characters inside of them, but he and Wéber genuinely seem to have cracked open a style for making melodramas every bit as exciting and inventive as when Douglas Sirk found bold colors could bring out what his characters were feeling, marvelously expressing with camerawork and the frenetic pacing of scenes the thoughts that are racing through their minds.

In “Evolution,” each generation has a bit more freedom in their movement than the last, albeit tied down to some degree by their Judaism for better or worse – acknowledging it can help Jonas get into the school Eva would like him to attend when he’s younger, only to be bullied about it when he’s older as antisemitism rears its ugly head with some of his fellow classmates – and Mundruczó and Wéber somehow seize the sensation of what’s it like to move through the world with agency when all one feels are its restrictions. While the film is a potent reminder that this history should never be forgotten, it also reveals how those connected to it are never allowed to forget.

“Evolution” will screen at Cannes on July 12th at 8:30 am at the Bunuel Theatre and 4:15 pm at Cineum Aura.

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