Adoption: Wayward Faces
A teenage girl reads aloud from an unsent letter she wrote to her estranged mother. The orphanage where she lives has forbidden her from mailing it. Kata, an older woman, a stranger, absorbs the force of its scalding words, full of pain and reprobation. Nobody’s daughter, the girl addresses her birth mother: “Do you know what maternal love is?” She recites a bracing litany of traumatic, irreconcilable events: how her mother allowed her stepfather to beat her, alienated her from her birth father. She says she is writing for the last time, and though “I belong to you . . . I’ll forget that I ever had a mother . . . I’m sorry, Mom, but I don’t love you . . . Try to live a happy life.” The older woman, the undesignated recipient of this torrent of volatile emotion, listens, beholden, intently, the two framed together, face upon face, in shallow focus. As we watch this scene of surrogacy and aurality, a bitter irony dawns: the lonely Kata wants a child.
“What should a mother be?” Márta Mészáros reflects in an interview with Catherine Portuges for her 1993 book Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Márta Mészáros. This could just as easily be the defining question, one both existential and plaintive, of the director’s fifth and best-known feature, Adoption, released in 1975. Mészáros’s film examines the unmet yearnings of Kata (Katalin Berek), a forty-three-year-old, widowed factory worker living in a small Hungarian town, who seeks to have a child. She asks her married lover, Jóska (László Szabó, a regular presence in French New Wave films), who already has children of his own, for help—she aims to raise the child alone. Affronted by a proposition of something that he believes would undermine the beneficence of their covert affair and produce a fatherless being, Jóska refuses. His rebuke recasts the question as a social problem and as an implicit judgment: What kind of mother can Kata be or become, at this stage in her life, as a single woman without support? The remainder of Mészáros’s exquisitely dolorous film unfolds as a reply. Why can’t she be the mother she longs to be, beyond the bounds of norms of kinship? Adoption is a maternal melodrama recomposed, a parable of wayward women in a world without mothers.
These concerns conflagrate as Kata’s life flows into contact with another abandoned teenage girl, the taciturn Anna (Gyöngyvér Vígh), whose parents long ago gave her up to the care of the state. The two women develop a transitory bond that edges toward a mercurial mutual affection. With disarming permissiveness, Kata lets Anna stay at her house to tryst with Sanyi (Péter Fried), a boy from a neighboring town with whom she is in love. They hope to marry, against the wishes of her biological parents and despite the bureaucratic indifference of the orphanage. As the two women grow unexpectedly closer, Kata assists Anna in her desired engagement, and Kata considers adopting a child, even as Anna warns her against it. “Abandoned children, they’re all wounded,” Anna says. Mészáros presents the weary incandescence of these women’s lives as a first principle, detailing its compromises, double binds, and fundamental mundanities. Amid the caked sawdust of the factory shop floor, the spartan kitchen, the examining table, and the shabby bistro, and in the constant din of barking stray dogs, what radiates is the indomitability of their personhoods, rendered through what critics have often noted as the filmmaker’s signature, a reticent unsentimentality. “All of my characters are quite tough and hard,” Mészáros told J. Hoberman in 1984.
“Mészáros captures the magnitude of characters’ faces in the flux of their moods and in the thickness of their longings.”