/Interview by Alika Gasimova/
Zsolt Pozsgai is a writer and director from Hungary. ‘The Devoted’ tells us the story of the historical conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. This storyline goes along with the storylines of relationships and love. This film is the perfect illustration that history can give answers to all relevant questions. Zsolt Pozsgai told us about film production and shared his view on the topic of cinematography.
What attracts you in Middle Ages?
I’m usually attracted to historical subjects because they are settled events, facts that are difficult to argue against. And because history is constantly repeating itself, it can give us answers for the present and the future, if we pay attention. Some people turn historical themes into adventure films, mystical films – I’ve found that if you investigate a historical and interesting event in depth, it makes for a much more exciting subject than if you make it up. For the writer, history is like a puzzle game: I put together the situations and figures I have encountered and keep putting them together until a new picture emerges. A writer who writes about a historical subject often comes to a different conclusion about an event than historians and scholars. Writers tend to see connections that historians rarely do. And they are free to use time and place in addition to facts. In this film, for example, Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola meet. Whether this was really the case is not known to historians. But it is a fact that Calvin had a religious dispute with an unknown Catholic priest in Lausanne, and why couldn’t this priest have been Ignatius of Loyola, who was on his way to Rome from Spain anyway? A historian will be scared out of his wits, and the writer and director will use this opportunity. History should not be falsified, but to take advantage of the “what if…” is the writer’s task. There have been several occasions when, in the case of a historical drama or a film of mine, politicians, for example, have been outraged and have taken it upon themselves that I portrayed them in such and such way. Yet, it did not even cross my mind. If someone recognizes himself in an old historical situation – that’s his problem.
You are both film and cinema director. What do you prefer more and why?
I first became a playwright, and there was a demand for me to direct my plays because the theatre directors saw that I was writing with a “director’s eye”, so the most obvious thing to do was to stage the play as well. I’ve been directing films for fifteen years, feature films, television films, documentaries, or short films, and I’ve been writing scripts with an eye to the realization. This may be because I have learned the practical school of filmmaking. And because I rely heavily on the creativity of the cinematographer, editor, lighting designer, and crew. For me, the director is a figure creating a kind of synthesis between different artistic disciplines, there is no such thing as a director’s film. I take note of the individuality of the artistic crew and actors and build on that when writing the technical script. Of course, this is only possible if I surround myself with talented people. And in general, I really like working with young people who are familiar with and open to new techniques. And in directing, I work with artists with whom we believe in each other and know each other’s ideas. Moreover, in my case, the director does not stick to every line of the script. If on the set, I find that a better, more original idea has emerged from our work together – then I’m willing to change it. This is only possible if I am both the writer and the director.
Why did you decide to make a film on this particular topic?
Europe is now very much like the time of Calvin. Then too, there was the problem of migration, from Africa through Spain, and through the Balkans from Turkey. The Catholic Church of that time was in an unprecedented state of decadence, trying to sell faith for money, just like today’s false prophets. At that time, you could order a decilitre of the Virgin Mary’s milk from the Vatican for a set price, for example. Our world today is also full of such absurdities, caused by the excessive prevalence of the business spirit. World history has shown that there are only ever two ways to solve a global problem. Either total rejection, destruction, and a new beginning, as Calvin did and founded the Protestant church. Or a total internal purification, a total renewal of the existing elements, as Ignatius of Loyola imagined. To destroy or to renew – that became the central question, as I think it is today. The truth is always somewhere in the middle, but we have to choose one or the other if we want to move forward. There was the same chaos in thinking as today. However, the debate between Calvin and Loyola shows something important: it is possible for two people to argue while respecting each other’s system of values and not trying to impose their own on the other by force and blood.
Which challenges did you meet while filming?
The biggest challenge was to find the right location. There are film studios built around Budapest, but they were soulless to me, empty sets. I found a recently built medieval part of town in southern Hungary, part of a wellness hotel. The streets, the houses, the furnishings of the rooms are all reminiscent of the Middle Ages, and they are inhabited by guests. So, there is life in these houses. Sometimes we asked the guests if they wanted to be extras in the film, they were given costumes and make-up, and they were all happy to come. The medieval atmosphere of this little spectacle was then even more intense. And for us, it was a big challenge to sell it as a contemporary Geneva. I think we made the right decision. If we had had a bigger budget, we would have shot in Switzerland, in a medieval town that had been specially preserved for this purpose.
Which scene in the film do you find the most important and why?
I think the last farewell meeting between Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola is the most important part of the film. How two people of diametrically opposed minds can say goodbye in peace and humanity, and each goes on their chosen path.
Which of the characters express your opinion on the topic you show in the film?
I think the interesting thing about making a film about a dilemma is that each of the main characters carries the answer to that question within themselves. In other words, you can agree with each of them if you look at the world from their point of view. The job of art and cinema is not to give answers, but to ask questions. Knowing that viewers are not all the same, they have different values, it is good if everyone can find their own answer to the question posed in the film. And then the film or any other work of art has already achieved its purpose.
What is the main message of the film?
It is not a question of what I am saying with the film, it is a question of whether we are hearing the message of history when it comes to historical themes. There has never been a greater need for understanding and loyalty to each other than now, in this pandemic. There was an epidemic then too, but in the area of church life, in the area of faith. Then, with the establishment of the Calvinist Church, and the later work of Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuits, the broken structure could be repaired. I very much hope that this will be the case today as well.
What was wrong in the Middle ages society and what is wrong in society today?
Medieval Europe wandered into very dangerous territory: as it developed its technical means, it crossed seas and oceans and tried to impose its own values, its own way of thinking, even its own religion on other peoples, what we later call colonialism. Thriving African or South American societies were destroyed forever, peoples disappeared forever, taking their cultural heritage and their achievements with them. For many hundreds of years, this shockingly cruel system has persisted, and its effects are still felt today. And when it finally appeared that this colonial system had been dismantled, the new colonialism was set in motion, which, under the false banner of a false democracy, sought to gain economic power in areas outside Europe or the United States of America. This power has destroyed the Arab world from Libya to Afghanistan and beyond. Cities, countries disappeared overnight or sank into utter misery. And then we wonder why these peoples are heading for Europe in the hope of a better life? To their former colonizers? I think it’s very dangerous to set European society against societies on different grounds. To give a very simple example: what kind of idiotic approach is it to distinguish between the vaccine in Western Europe and the vaccine in Russia or China in today’s epidemic? When Russian or Chinese science has always been highly developed, with centuries, millennia of experience. In Western Europe, nation-states are slowly disappearing, and it is no longer possible to distinguish a Frenchman from a Spaniard or an Italian, a Dane from a German. Eastern societies carry their national character, a Russian can be recognized everywhere because he has a national character, behavior, and culture characteristic of his nation. That is why I prefer to travel with my films to Eastern festivals, from Iran to Russia and Japan, because there I can still find the original national culture, the thing that distinguishes it from others. And ‘variety is the spice of life’, as the ancients used to say.
Do people change throughout the ages? How, if they do?
People do not change, circumstances change around them, and they try to adapt to them for better or worse. He reacts well or badly to the changed circumstances, as he succeeds. An old man is always the same playful child, but he has to respond to the challenges of his environment. I like people who try to preserve as much of their youthful self, their dreams, as possible. And they live by it. This film is about that to some extent. Both protagonists represented the values that they had received in their youth until their death.
Szabó Máté and Nagy Nati. Captions from ‘The Devoted’
How would you describe the cinematography and the opportunities you have in that field in Hungary?
The film art of different nations has its own recognizable characteristics that set it apart from others. The greatest strength of Hungarian film is usually the acting. I have noticed that there are extremely talented actors who live and work in a well-established theatre system supported by the state, and they are also involved in filmmaking. And because they work in different genres, they are extremely colorful, capable of very deep performances. For me, a film is first and foremost about the self-expression and talent of the actor. And I’m happy when a Hungarian actor’s performance at the Goa Film Festival makes people feel amazed. Or most recently at a festival in Los Angeles, we won the “best acting team” award because we were judged to have great performances even in the smallest roles. Before the epidemic, when we could travel to festivals to accept awards, for example, with this film I loved to take the actors with me, and their happiness was my happiness. Toasting the Best Film award on the rooftop of a hotel in Monte Carlo with the two main actors of my film – therefore it was already worth being a film director.